Salena Zito

Pennsylvania’s Republican presidential primary last counted in 1980, when Ronald Reagan lost to George H.W. Bush in a nasty battle.

Bush won the popular vote – but Reagan walked away with the delegates.

Four years earlier, Reagan was so desperate to win the Keystone State against incumbent Gerald Ford that the iconic conservative said he would pick Dick Schweiker, Pennsylvania’s very moderate U.S. senator, as his running mate.

It didn't work.

Rick Santorum heads home next month, hoping to win back the state that kicked him to the curb in 2006. He’ll arrive after winning two key Southern primaries and back-to-back state polls showing him 14 points ahead of Mitt Romney.

“The assumption should be, coming into Pennsylvania, he will be up in the polls even though he was drummed out of here pretty hard-core in 2006,” said Villanova University political scientist Lara Brown.

She said Santorum is benefiting from national attention and, contrarily, from most Pennsylvanians not yet paying close attention to the race.

Pennsylvania also is the home state of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Harrisburg native, and of Texas congressman Ron Paul, who grew up in suburban Pittsburgh.

A problem for all of the candidates except Romney is that none have seriously calculated into their campaign strategies that people’s votes don't win the nomination – delegates do.

It was the same daunting problem Hillary Clinton faced when she hit Pennsylvania four years ago today.

She won that primary over Barack Obama. Yet experts warned in advance that the Keystone race didn't matter: The state’s delegates would split, Obama would continue to gain in numbers, and Clinton had no clear path to “out-delegate” him.

Santorum faces that problem today, according to Josh Putnam, a delegate expert and political scientist at Davidson College. He said last Tuesday’s Southern primaries got Santorum no closer to Romney in delegates or in the ability to win the GOP nomination.

“Any night where Santorum doesn't cut into Romney's delegate lead -- and cut into it significantly – is a win for Romney,” he said.

Also last Tuesday, an impressive array of Pennsylvania Republicans, from congressmen to county chairmen, turned their backs on Santorum and endorsed Romney. They included Santorum’s close friend, Western Pennsylvania congressman Bill Schuster.

“The thing is, Romney is more conservative than Santorum,” said Dwight Weidman, a former Santorum supporter and Franklin County’s GOP chairman. “Of course, that runs contrary to what the news reports, but it is true.”

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.