OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The four candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination have ramped up their ground game in Oklahoma recently after largely ignoring it for months, but whoever wins Tuesday’s primary in a state with the reputation for being the “reddest of the red” will have to do it without the usual broad network of local chairmen and dedicated volunteers.

With just 40 delegates at stake, Oklahoma is hardly one of the largest prizes on Super Tuesday, as more attention is focused on Tennessee, Georgia and especially the bellwether state of Ohio. Still, a victory in Oklahoma could underscore conservative credentials in a place that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and where Barack Obama failed to win a single county four years ago.

At this point in the selection process four years ago, Sen. John McCain had already sewn up the GOP nomination. Until Rick Santorum’s victories last month in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri last month there was little perceived need for candidates to devote resources to Oklahoma.

But now Santorum has been here twice in the past month, and Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul have also visited.

“It’s a conservative state and one that connects with the kind of candidate I am and the kind of policies I have,” Santorum said Sunday night in an interview with The Associated Press.

Although Democrats still outnumber Republicans in this state with deep populist roots, there is an overwhelming advantage for the GOP in statewide federal races. That, Republican Party Chairman Matt Pinnell says, is why it has lost his reputation as a “flyover state.”

“We’re the most conservative state in America, and candidates want to be able to raise that mantel,” Pinnell said, “and we also have a lot of conservative money that these candidates can raise. We’re a state that all of these candidates are excited to visit now.”

Of the four candidates, Pinnell said Paul has had the most organized ground game in recent months but that all of the candidates are clearly ramping up their activity in the waning days before Super Tuesday.

“I think they’re all trying to peak at the right time. That may be why they haven’t been visible,” Pinnell said. “I think you’ll see everything from a lot more phone banking, a lot more sign waving on targeted street corners, a lot more yard signs, those kinds of activities.”

Santorum, who drew thousands during campaign stops last month in Oklahoma, resonates with Republican voters here due to a large number of voters who describe themselves as evangelical or “born again,” said Democratic political strategist Ben Odom.

“Santorum is currently the darling of the religious right, and that’s a big hunk of the Republican electorate in Oklahoma,” Odom said. “He knows how to throw red meat out to the crowds too.”

Santorum made a last-minute pitch to Oklahoma voters with a visit on Sunday to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, a star quarterback at the University of Oklahoma in the 1980s, joined former GOP presidential contender Herman Cain on a campaign tour Monday for Gingrich. The “$2.50 Gas Tour” planned stops in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Midwest City.

Romney hasn’t visited the state since October and his ground game is less visible, but he has earned some high-profile endorsements, including former Gov. Frank Keating and a weekend endorsement from Oklahoma’s Republican Tom Coburn, who is among the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate.

“I think we’re actually getting a little more attention than our population deserves,” said Pat McFerron, a GOP pollster and political strategist.

But McFerron said it’s not unusual for presidential candidates to wait until the last minute to ramp up its ground game in a state.

“With the presidential campaigns, if you just look at the fluctuations, there’s not a lot of ground building by the campaigns prior to when you’re on deck,” McFerron said. “Every ounce of energy and focus is on the state that has the next election, with just a few exceptions.”

Early voting, which began Friday, has been steady at county election boards across the state, said Oklahoma County Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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