By AARON SCHOLDER
ALBANY -- With the Republican primary race heating up across the country, New York's party leaders think its primary could end up having a bigger impact than originally thought.
Despite being on the tail end of the primary schedule on April 24, New York's GOP chairs are beginning to think the state's 95 delegates could mean a lot to candidates.
"I think it most likely will be a factor," said Tony Casale, the chief of staff of the state Republican Committee. "A lot can happen between now and the 24th but as it's progressing right now, I think New York state will be in play on April 24."
Presidential candidates were required to file their delegates by Feb. 21 with the state Board of Elections. President Barack Obama, as well as the four leading GOP candidates -- Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul -- all filed their delegate slates before the deadline.
The state's impact on the race will vary depending on the outcomes of several primaries that are scheduled before it. On March 6, "Super Tuesday" will take place with 10 primaries, the biggest of which will be Ohio, Georgia and Tennessee.
There will be 15 more primaries or caucuses before New York gets to vote, including Texas, which holds the second-highest number of delegates with 155 and whose primary is tentatively scheduled for April 3. California has the most delegates at stake with 172, and its primary is June 5. New York has the third most.
Whether New York will matter remains unclear, said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, based in Poughkeepsie.
"New York will be very important for amassing delegates ... but it may become more clear by (April 24) whether this continues to be the kind of surge-and-decline contest we've seen so far or whether someone for all intents and purposes has achieved the nomination," he said.
However, most GOP leaders think the primary will factor in to deciding the party's candidate if only because of a change in the system from previous elections.
For this year's primary, New York will no longer be a "winner-take-all" state. Delegates will now be apportioned among candidates on the ballot based on the voting results.
"It really does matter that people vote and who they vote for," said Rockland County Executive Scott Vanderhoef, who is filed as a delegate for Romney. "More than in the past, it really does matter, particularly if we don't have a clear winner going into the convention."
Vanderhoef said he chose to support Romney because of his business acumen and his electability.
Republican leaders across the state who anticipate a contentious battle as the primary schedule proceeds said that the proportional primary could have a significant impact.
"Given the number of delegates we have, I think it will be important," said Lowell Conrad, the chairman of the Livingston County Republican Committee.
Candidates need to get 1,144 delegates to be declared the winner. The Republican National Convention will take place in Tampa, Fla. on Aug. 27, and there has been talk of the potential for a brokered convention among delegates.
Even if New York doesn't have an impact at the ballot box, it is having a sizeable role on the money spent on the race.
A report this month from MapLight, a California-based political finance watchdog group, said New Yorkers contributed $13.3 million through Dec. 31 to the Super PACs that support the candidates.
New Yorkers ranked second in the nation in the amount contributed to Super PACs, behind Texas, the report found. Nearly $8.4 million from New Yorkers went to Romney's Super PAC -- and $5.8 million of it came from New York City.
Bronxville, Westchester County, contributed $120,000 to Romney's Super PAC and $100,000 came from Rochester residents.
Super PACs are officially unaffiliated with candidates but can take out ads in support of them.
Though the Super PAC money is not necessarily an indicator of how voting will go come April, the psychological influence it could have is key, said Pamela Heisey, a spokeswoman with MapLight.
"When a candidate has a lot of money, people's impressions are formed fairly easily and a candidate can easily wipe his hands clean of any negative attack ads by having a Super PAC," Heisey said.
It is difficult to determine who would be favored to win New York's primary, Republican leaders said, as it is too early to tell whether all four candidates would still be campaigning.
"I feel like everyone feels like they want their vote to count," said Ayesha Kreutz, the chaplain of the Rochester chapter of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a Republican-leaning policy group, who is filed as a delegate supporting Santorum. "I do think that it's a pretty wide open field. It's anybody's game at this point."
Kreutz said she supported Santorum because he supports values she believes in.
Many New York lawmakers are supporting Romney, including Sens. Thomas O'Mara, R-Big Flats, Chemung County; Catharine Young, R-Olean, Cattaraugus County; George Maziarz, R-Newfane, Niagara County; and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County.
Other notables supporting Romney include former gubernatorial candidates Rick Lazio and John Faso.
Santorum's slate includes former congressional candidates Doug Hoffman, a conservative who lost to Democratic Rep. Bill Owens in a 2009 special election in northern New York; and Neil Di Carlo, a Brewster, Putnam County, resident who challenged now-Rep. Nan Hayworth in a 2010 GOP primary.
Gingrich delegates include 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, a Buffalo businessman, and Rochester conservative radio host Bill Nojay.
A poll released by Quinnipiac University on Feb. 15 said registered Republican voters in New York favored Romney over the other candidates. The poll said 32 percent of New Yorkers supported him, a 12-percentage-point advantage over Santorum.
The poll said 14 percent supported Paul and 10 percent supported Gingrich.
"New York would be friendly territory for Romney, but then again, the conventional wisdom has not bore out too well," Miringoff said. "I think the picture for New York will be much clearer once we get closer to (the primary)."
By AARON SCHOLDER