StateLine: Massachusetts is a player again in presidential delegate contests

Tom Benner

Tomorrow is “Super Duper Tuesday,” with the largest-ever number of states holding presidential primaries or caucuses on the same day.

In 24 states, 1,681 Democratic delegates and 1,023 Republican delegates to the national presidential nominating conventions are for grabs. That’s a huge chunk: a candidate needs 2,025 delegates to secure the Democratic nomination, 1,191 to win the Republican nomination.

Massachusetts is the fifth-richest state voting tomorrow in terms of Democratic delegates, with 121; the state ranks 11th for available Super Tuesday delegates for Republican candidates, with 43.

The lack of any clear front-runner makes Massachusetts an important battleground. That’s a rarity: normally, the presumptive presidential nominees are largely determined by the time Massachusetts holds its delegate contest.

Massachusetts Democrats haven’t seen a wide-open primary race since 1992, when native son Paul Tsongas won the state but eventually lost the nomination to Bill Clinton. Massachusetts Republicans haven’t seen a vibrant primary battle since 2000, when they picked John McCain over then-Gov. George W. Bush by a 2-to-1 margin.

By moving up the 2008 primary from March 4 to Feb. 5, the state finds itself in the thick of two tight races between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republicans McCain and Mitt Romney.

The rifts are open and in some cases painful, on both sides.

Kimball Simpson, a registered Democrat in Westborough, thought Hillary Clinton had the Democratic nomination wrapped up. Now he’s worried about a bruising primary battle between Clinton and Obama.

“You’d like to have a viable candidate going into the presidential convention,” Simpson said. “If they damage each other too badly, neither one can win.”

The state’s two U.S. senators, Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, are among high-profile Massachusetts Democrats backing Obama, signaling a shift in the state’s traditional support for the Clintons.

On the Republican side, McCain, the Arizona senator, hopes to embarrass Mitt Romney on his home turf.

Alex Macmillan of Hingham, a registered Republican and Romney supporter, thinks the former governor lost his footing by running to the right of former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani.

“He started out running against Rudy Giuliani, so he had to position himself to the right,” Macmillan said. “If a year ago, McCain appeared to be the likely leader, there would have been a different kind of a Romney campaign.”

Either Romney or McCain, however, may have a tough time winning the November presidential election, Macmillan fears.

“With the opposition to the war, and the economy not particularly strong, it would be amazing to think the Republicans are anything but a long shot, no matter who they nominate,” he said.

The strong interest in both the Democratic and Republican contests – and the possibility of participating in decisive victories in the presidential contests – may bring out record turnouts.

Quincy City Clerk Joe Shea expects a turnout between 42 percent to 45 percent of registered voters, compared to 19 percent in the city’s presidential primaries four years ago, and 36 percent in 2000.

“We’re more viable now than we were in the past,” Shea said of the state’s moved-up primary. “In the past we were insignificant in March. We weren’t a player.”

Southborough Town Clerk Paul Berry said applications for absentee ballots – an early indicator of voter interest in an election – are at an all-time high in that town.

“We’ve had more absentee ballots than we’ve ever had for a presidential primary,” Berry said. “We’re swamped with them.”

Clinton, Obama and John McCain all plan on making Bay State appearances Monday. Romney is scheduled to return to Massachusetts in time for election night.

Polls are open tomorrow from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Tom Benner may be reached at