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Pa. primary may matter more than usual

The Pennsylvania primary election typically occurs too late in the presidential season to have much influence in nominating a candidate.

The Pennsylvania primary election typically occurs too late in the presidential season to have much influence in nominating a candidate.

Nothing about this Republican presidential primary feels typical.

Consider Donald Trump, the flame-throwing front-runner who tamed his tone and topics Friday while giving the Pennsylvania Republican Party keynote speech at a luncheon Friday in Manhattan.

Trump's staying power at the top of many - but not all - polls has put to rest the previously held notion by many in his party that he was a shooting star passing briefly through the presidential universe.

If Trump is here to stay and continues to push the primal populism - his call for a ban on Muslim immigration and propensity to deride anyone who dares offer a conflicting view - then our state's April 26 primary could be an important stop on the way to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July.

The Republican National Committee suddenly is preparing for a possible "floor fight" at the convention, with candidates duking it out over multiple ballots before a winner is declared.

The party will have 2,470 delegates. A candidate needs 1,236 to win.

Pennsylvania has 71 delegates, including 54 divided among the state's 18 congressional districts.

The 17 others include at-large delegates, the state's two RNC representatives, and the state party chairman.

Party rules say that the 54 district delegates can support any candidate, but that the at-large delegates must vote on the first ballot for the winner of the Pennsylvania primary, no matter what they think of the candidate.

After that first ballot, they can then support any candidate.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican seeking a second term next year, has his fate tied to the top of the ticket, no matter who his party's nominee is.

Typically, that person is someone who has established an early lead.

Again, typical is off the menu these days.

"Early momentum becomes enormously important and often decisive," Toomey said Saturday while attending the annual Pennsylvania Society political gathering in New York. "This is an unusual cycle, and it looks to me entirely possible that it will not be resolved early, in which case the Pennsylvania primary could be extremely important."

Toomey declined to "get into the relevant merits of the candidates." But he expressed doubt that Republican front-runner Donald Trump would be the nominee.

Toomey, like many Republicans, took care in what he said about Trump, who has been lashing out at just about any criticism. But his decision to skip Trump's keynote speech to the Pennsylvania Republican Party after cautiously criticizing Trump's call for a ban on all Muslim immigration said plenty.

Former Gov. Tom Ridge also thinks the Pennsylvania primary could "very likely" have more influence than usual, in part because of the crowded field of GOP candidates.

Eleven states will hold primary elections on March 1, known as Super Tuesday. Pennsylvanians cast their ballots eight weeks later.

"By the time these candidates roll into Pennsylvania, even though we're not part of Super Tuesday, it could make a real, real difference," said Ridge, who is supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Ridge, who also was attending Pennsylvania Society events, said Trump has "really tapped into" a sense of unrest and anger among GOP voters with President Obama. Will he enter Pennsylvania as a strong front-runner?

"By the time they get to Pennsylvania, I don't think anyone is going to have a significant lead," Ridge said.

When the delegates are counted in Cleveland, Ridge predicts, every single vote will matter.

"They're going to be diving for every loose ball," he said of the GOP candidates.