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Republican presidential candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participate in the Republican presidential candidates debate in Jacksonville, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

For months, nobody figured California Republicans would have a say in picking their party's 2012 presidential contender -- the state's June 5 primary was just too late to matter.

But suddenly, as a volatile and vicious GOP battle barrels toward Tuesday's Florida primary, uncertainty is setting in as some pundits start to wonder: Could the Golden State's mother lode of delegates actually make a difference?

"It's still a long shot, but the possibility of a contested June Republican primary in California is greater today than it has been in many years," said Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who now directs the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics.

In one scenario, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney could keep tearing at each other long enough for California to weigh in. In another, party elders and deep-pocketed donors could decide neither of them is viable anymore and back a late entry into the race.

"If Romney loses Florida too, there is going to be a serious call for another candidate -- there are so many Republican officeholders not willing to accept Gingrich as a candidate, but they also might begin to realize Romney can't beat him," said nationally renowned election prognosticator Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Sabato noted that it's possible for someone to enter the race in February and still compete for a majority of delegates.

In all, 2,286 delegates are up for grabs. A candidate needs half that plus one -- 1,144 -- to clinch the nomination at the Republican National Convention this August in Tampa, Fla.

Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina had a total of 65 delegates at stake, just a little more than the 50 in winner-take-all Florida -- and far less than California's 172.

California's delegates mattered more in the heady days of 2008, when the state was the biggest prize in a Feb. 5, 23-state "Tsunami Tuesday" with hotly contested primaries for Republicans and Democrats alike. Presidential candidates from both parties campaigned here aggressively.

Not this year. Gov. Jerry Brown last July signed a law moving the presidential primary back to early June, remarrying it with all other California primaries. Democrats didn't mind because their incumbent faces no primary challengers, and Republicans found it hard to vote against a bill that saves the state an estimated $100 million in election costs.

So by the time California votes, all but six other states and territories already will have done so, and as many as 1,900 delegates -- more than 80 percent -- could be spoken for.

Still, even several months from now, we can matter. Sabato cited California's Democratic presidential primary on June 5, 1984. Gary Hart won the state, leaving Walter Mondale about 40 delegates short of what he needed for the nomination. Mondale didn't clinch it until unelected "superdelegates" flocked to him that July at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.

"It is certainly unlikely" that California will make any difference in the GOP race this year, Sabato said, but "on the Republican side, things are a mess, and you just never know."

James Faix, 60, a pathologist and Stanford professor from Menlo Park, said he believes he and his fellow California Republicans will have some say in June.

"I think it's the inevitable outcome of this rather weak field," he said. "It'll be like the old days when you didn't really know what was going to happen."

If Sabato's mystery latecomer materializes, he or she might have to be a Rhodes scholar (like Sabato) in order to navigate the Republican primary delegate-selection calculus.

The first three states already have winnowed the field from six candidates to four, and Florida alone could be big enough to scare someone else out of the race. (Hint: His name rhymes with "slick decorum.")

After Florida, next on the long road to the Golden State is Nevada; its primary is Feb. 4, with 28 delegates. Later in the month come Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Maine, Arizona and Michigan, with a total of 211 delegates.

February could be tough for Gingrich because many of those states have fewer evangelical Christian conservatives, the group that propelled his victory in South Carolina. In fact, Romney beat the eventual nominee, John McCain, in five of these seven states in 2008. And this year Romney can capitalize on McCain's endorsement and a significant Mormon presence in McCain's home state of Arizona.

After that, the 10 states -- with 438 delegates -- voting on "Super Tuesday," March 6, could be someone's Waterloo.

"There's nothing that's going to happen between now and the beginning of March that would cause either Romney or Gingrich to step back, but we probably won't have a sense of how much longer the primary goes after Super Tuesday until then," Schnur said.

And if California does still matter by then, it's unlikely that one candidate will walk off with all of its delegates. Most -- 159 -- are doled out to whoever wins each of the state's 53 House districts, three delegates per district. An additional 10 at-large delegates go to whoever wins statewide. The state's three GOP leaders -- national committeeman Shawn Steel, of Palos Verdes, national committeewoman Linda Ackerman, of Irvine, and state Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro, of Lafayette -- will go to the convention "unpledged," allowed to back whomever they want.

So it's months of variables between now and California's primary -- and then a variable outcome here.

As Sabato put it: "Strange things happen in politics, and you just can't see around the corner. You think you can, but you may be looking into a fun house mirror."

Josh Richman covers politics. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.