Once the Republican presidential primaries entered April, leaving behind March with its run of several Southern contests, the electoral terrain was expected to start looking much better for Mitt Romney.
That seems the case Tuesday, as Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia hold the first primaries in April, with a total of 98 delegates at stake. The front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination is expected to have a very good day. Just how good remains to be seen.
Impressive wins Tuesday could help Romney further the growing sense in his party that resistance to him is futile, that he will be the nominee. It would also make his rivals' arguments for staying in the race, especially those of Rick Santorum, the last not-Romney to pose a threat, sound ever more forced and divorced from political reality.
That said, here are five things to watch for Tuesday:
1. The statewide margin. Wisconsin is the big cheese on Tuesday, with 42 delegates at stake. Of the three jurisdictions holding primaries, it is the most competitive, with the former Massachusetts governor expected to blow his competition away in Maryland and D.C.
Real Clear Politics averages Romney's leads in recent Wisconsin polls to 7.5 percentage points. So one question will be, does he meet or exceed expectations? There's little to indicate that his campaign in the Badger State faltered in the lead up to the primaries. If he does significantly better than his lead in polls indicated, that could indicate that late-deciding voters moved in Romney's direction.
2. Delegate math. Romney may have a commanding lead in delegates nationally but he still needs to reach 1,144 to get the nomination.
Meanwhile Santorum's goal is to do everything he can to keep him from getting there before the party's August national convention. (Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul just aren't expected to be factors in Wisconsin, Maryland or D.C.)
Winning the statewide vote in Wisconsin would mean Romney would get the 18 at-large and automatic delegates. The remaining 24 delegates are spread across the state's eight congressional districts, three to a district. The candidate who gets the most votes in a congressional district wins its three delegates.
Maryland has 37 delegates at stake, with 13 to be allocated to the candidate who gets the most votes statewide and the remaining 24 distributed, as in Wisconsin, across the eight congressional districts, three per district.
Thus, Romney is pretty much ensured 13 delegates and will most likely add more delegates from the Maryland congressional districts closest to the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore metropolitan areas.
Santorum, however, could do well in the conservative Eastern Shore and in western Maryland, which shares a lot culturally with similar rural parts of his home state of Pennsylvania.
In the District of Columbia, 19 delegates will be up for the taking, 16 of them pledged to the primaries winner, who is expected to be Romney. Santorum didn't even make it onto the D.C. ballot.
3. Is geography still destiny? If the pattern from other Midwestern states holds, Romney should do well in Wisconsin's urban-suburban districts, where most of the voters live, while Santorum should dominate in more rural districts with fewer voters.
That means in Wisconsin Romney should do best in Milwaukee and its suburbs, in southeastern Wisconsin, and in Green Bay to the north. He and his superPAC allies have heavily advertised in those two media markets, the state's largest, to improve their chances of winning big there. Santorum has campaigned in those places but has also gone to central Wisconsin and farther west, too.
Craig Gilbert, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Washington bureau chief, reminds us that Wisconsin isn't a carbon copy of its neighbor Illinois:
"Given the makeup of the GOP vote in this state and the recurring voting patterns of this race, it's hard to imagine Romney winning Wisconsin without beating Santorum in the critical suburban belt around Milwaukee.
"And if Romney wins those base counties by significant margins, it would be a telling accomplishment, because these counties are less moderate, less affluent, and more socially conservative than the white-collar suburbs Romney won so easily in Illinois two weeks ago."
Gilbert's post also has good maps that show the Wisconsin counties Romney and Santorum personally campaigned in. It's a clear indication of where they perceive their strengths to be.
4. Are conservatives finally moving to Romney? In prior contests Santorum, and before him Gingrich, did better with the most conservative voters than did Romney. So it will be interesting to see in exit polls whether Romney, now looking more inevitable, is making headway with this important part of the Republican base.
5. Turnout. This will be especially interesting to watch in Wisconsin where much of voter and party attention has been on the recall elections of Gov. Scott Walker and several Republican legislators in the statehouse, not the presidential race.
If the turnout matches or exceeds 2008, that would obviously signal an energized base and suggest a robust appearance by voters for the June recall election and perhaps the general election in November.
Lower turnout, however, could mean that voters were paying more attention to the recall. But it could also mean they were uninspired by their presidential choices or turned off by all the negative advertising. Whatever it turns out to be, expect political analysts to be reading it closely for signs.