If the early primaries and caucuses don't decide the Republican presidential nomination, former Sen. Fred Thompson may enjoy an edge in any drawn-out delegate slugfest due to his Sun Belt roots and "red state" strength.
That's because the way delegates are allocated to the Republican National Convention, which picks the White House nominee, gives disproportionate clout to states that President Bush carried in 2004 above what their population would otherwise dictate.
Thompson, of Tennessee, is currently polling best against his rivals in many of those "red states," those that have voted Republican for president in recent years and have GOP governors and members of Congress.
Those states are mostly the ones in Thompson's native South, but also the Southwest, the agricultural Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, where his regional background might make him appealing, especially when competing against Northeasterners.
The other two leading contenders for the GOP nomination are Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and current front-runner Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York.
The other major GOP hopeful is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, but even though his numbers have stabilized in some states, his standing is lower now than earlier this year, when he was considered the front-runner. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is also from the Sun Belt, but he has not shown much strength in polls and lags behind McCain.
The Republicans have not nominated a Northeasterner for president since Thomas Dewey in 1948. Only two of the past 13 GOP presidential nominees since then - Gerald Ford in 1976 and Bob Dole in 1996 - have not been from the Sun Belt.
Republican Party rules allocate delegates to the national convention, which will be Sept. 1-4, 2008, in Minneapolis, based on state population. But they also give bonus delegates to states that have voted for the party's presidential candidate recently and elected Republicans to statewide office and to Congress.
The election results of the past decade, in which the GOP has dominated the Sun Belt and the Rockies, give those states their clout, while those in the Northern tier have elected a lot fewer Republicans.
The Democrats have a similar system, which is why Northeastern states, for instance, have disproportionate influence in picking their presidential nominee.
This greater say for the generally Republican-voting states in the GOP race shows up when comparing a state's clout in the Electoral College, where the votes are based almost exclusively on population, with its representation at the GOP convention.
For instance, New York, which has 31 Electoral College votes in November and has voted Republican for president only once in 30 years, has 101 delegates at the Republican convention. Florida, with 27 electoral votes, has 114 GOP delegates.
This is not a unique situation. New Jersey has 15 electoral votes and 52 delegates, while North Carolina has the same 15 electoral votes but 69 GOP convention delegates. Connecticut and Oklahoma each have seven electoral votes, but the former has a dozen fewer delegates than the latter.
In all, the 50 states plus D.C. will have 2,429 delegates to the Republican convention next September. (U.S. territories have an additional 59.) The states that Bush won in 2004 gave him 53 percent of the electoral votes, but they have 62 percent of those 2,429 convention delegates.
Romney's strategy is to blitz his opponents with a string of early victories in Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire, which are the first three important contests, and hope that provides momentum to carry him in states where he is not well-known. Romney currently leads polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and, depending on the survey, Michigan, where his father was once governor.
Giuliani, the leader in the national polls, is basing his strategy on possibly surviving losses in the early states but cleaning up on delegates when the major states begin voting later.
But the potential flaw in that strategy is the reality that, among those states where Rudy runs strongest, there are fewer delegates available than in the Rocky Mountain and Sun Belt states where Thompson has strength.
Of course, there is no rule that Southern and Western Republicans won't vote for a candidate from New York or Boston. But if they don't, and the nomination contest isn't settled by the early states, then Thompson has a built-in edge.