It sounds like a conservative GOP nightmare, but California could end up deciding who the Republican presidential candidate will be. It's looking more and more like the state and its June 5 primary—the second-to-last date on the primary calendar—will be key in the relentlessly fractured race. “If Gingrich drops out and Santorum can go at Romney one on one, it could be competitive all the way to California, in which case California would pretty much decide the nomination,” delegate expert and national GOP committeeman John Ryder tells the Washington Post. The state's mammoth number of 172 delegates is 15% of the delegates a candidate needs to win the nomination. It's technically a winner-take-all state, but delegates can be apportioned out.
So far, Mitt Romney is a strong early favorite in California, leading by 20 points in the most recent poll, notes the Post. The state's more moderate brand of Republicanism seems friendlier to Romney, and its pot-smokers and gay rights activists are unlikely to warm to Rick Santorum's social conservatism. But Romney lost to John McCain last time around, and Mitt's rivals haven't yet set up a presence in the state. The last primary is in Utah, and Romney is a shoo-in to take the 40 delegates there. (Read more Mitt Romney stories.)