The jumbled Republican presidential field means Ohio's March 6 primary may matter after all.
And that has many Northeast Ohio Republicans -- who figured the search for a nominee would be long over by this time -- excited and looking forward to the election to come.
"It got a whole lot more interesting," said Dave Gusman, president of the Strongsville Republican Club. "I think this is great for the country and great for the party."
With Rick Santorum's victories in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri earlier this week, Ohio and nine other March 6 "Super Tuesday" states now may have a real say in deciding who takes on President Barack Obama in the general election.
It doesn't always work that way. In 2008, John McCain had the GOP nomination all but wrapped up when Super Tuesday rolled around. Often the nominee is all but decided after the important early votes in Iowa, New Hamphsire and South Carolina.
This year, Ohio is in play because Republicans have been waffling on choosing a nominee. Early frontrunner Mitt Romney hasn't performed like one recently, and now he's dealing with a surging Santorum, who also won in Iowa in January. Newt Gingrich remains a factor after his big win in South Carolina. Ron Paul is still there too, siphoning libertarian-leaning voters away from the others.
Some primaries before Super Tuesday could make the Ohio primary vote less meaningful, including an important contest in Michigan on Feb. 28. But many Republicans say Ohio's historical role as a kingmaker -- candidates don't become presidents without winning the Buckeye state -- means that the eyes of the nation will turn Ohio's way come Super Tuesday. Ohio has 66 delegates and 18 electoral votes up for grabs.
"As they say: As Ohio goes, so does the nation," said Bonnie Dolezal, president of the Heights GOP in Cleveland Heights. "I think more so than usual, Ohio is going to be so important in this primary and we're going to have so many electoral votes at stake."
The candidates are starting to show up too. Gingrich was in Cleveland for an event on Wednesday and Romney and Santorum are expected to attend Lincoln Day events in Northeast Ohio next weekend. Romney is scheduled to visit Landerhaven in Mayfield Heights and Santorum will visit Summit County for Lincoln Day events.
But Rick Eisenberg, president of the Mayfield Republican Club, tempered the enthusiasm. Santorum is , and so Romney has an edge in winning the state's 66 delegates.
Romney appears to be the frontrunner here, at least among local Republican clubs. He won straw polls with the Mayfield and Cuyahoga Valley Republican clubs.
But those straw polls were counted weeks ago. They say support may have changed since then.
Why can't Romney cinch the deal? Al Bota, a member of the Cuyahoga Valley Republicans, said many Republicans don't know if Romney really supports the positions important to conservatives and that he doesn't connect with voters like Santorum and Gingrich.
"Romney has a difficult time making that emotional connection," Bota said.
But others think Romney has what it takes. Mike Rasor, a Republican councilman in Stow, said Romney is the only candidate who can bring a "fresh perspective" to Washington.
"I feel he shares my beliefs on capitalism and tax policy," Rasor said. "All of the candidates have had hot streaks. Romney is the only candidate whose support has remained steady. I think that's a reflection on the people's belief in his ability to win in November."
Republicans say the weeks ahead will be exciting as they watch what plays out in Ohio and beyond, perhaps all the way to the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay in late August.
Gusman said the close three-way race could lead to a broken convention, in which no Republican candidate garners 50 percent of the delegates.
"For political junkies, this is going to be a fun year," Gusman said.