Why Rick Santorum's Ohio Delegate Fiasco Could Get Messy

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

CINCINNATI - Let the haggling begin.

Rick Santorum still holds a slim lead over Mitt Romney in the latest Ohio polls, but win or lose on Tuesday, the results of the primary are almost certainly going to give way to an ugly fight over delegates that has the potential to last for weeks.

Santorum failed to submit the required paperwork in three of the state's congressional districts to be eligible to win any delegates and only partial paperwork in six other districts. And it's in those six where things start to get complicated.

The former Pennsylvania senator's campaign needed to come up with at least three names in each of the state's 16 congressional districts for full delegate eligibility, but his failure submit full slates in some places will result in "unbound" delegates, which will be up for grabs after Super Tuesday.

Take the state's fourth congressional district, for example. There Santorum submitted the name of one delegate, but left two other lines blank. If Santorum were to win the district, the state party would award him one delegate with the other two remaining officially un-allocated.

But there's no way any of the campaigns are going to leave those delegates on the table.

Ohio Republican Party rules state that representatives for any of the presidential candidates can file a petition with the state party to claim the outstanding delegates. Such a petition would trigger the formation of a "Committee on Contests" - a three member panel to be chosen by Ohio GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine.

The committee would consider legal arguments from each of the interested campaigns and take their decision to the state party's central committee for approval. Complicating matters further, the composition of the Ohio GOP's central committee will change on Super Tuesday when new members are chosen.

The combination of complex party bylaws, electoral politics and legal wrangling could prove to be a lethal mix that leaves one or more campaigns crying foul. Case-in-point: This week the Michigan Republican Party tweaked its rules to award one additional delegate to Mitt Romney, who won the state, even though it initially appeared the delegate was in Santorum's column. The Santorum campaign protested vocally, arguing that Romney's establishment ties were helping him beat the system.

As ABC News reported on Friday, Santorum's failure to submit paperwork in Ohio could put as many as 18 delegates in jeopardy - nine are entirely unwinnable for him and nine others are at risk. That's more than one quarter of the state's 66 delegates. Ohio represents the second largest delegate prize on Super Tuesday behind Georgia.

Voters who go to the polls in Ohio on Tuesday will essentially be asked to vote twice for the presidential candidate they support: the first vote will count toward 18 "at large" delegates and the second vote will count for district delegates (three per district).

Santorum's name will appear on the ballot at least once everywhere in Ohio, but in the places where he filed no paperwork, it will only appear once, robbing him of a chance to win that district's delegates. In places where he filed incomplete slates, Santorum's name will appear twice, but if he wins there, he will only be able to claim delegates through a legal challenge.