Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997.

The degree to which New York's upcoming GOP presidential primary will pack a punch depends on Rick Santorum's remaining a candidate for at least the next couple of weeks.

Then, if on April 24 Santorum fades further here and in four other Northeastern primaries, rival Mitt Romney will face a clear path to the nomination, and New York will have loomed large in the breakthrough.

Of course, part of the Romney strategy calls for convincing members of his party that he's the inevitable nominee. And, of course, the Santorum forces are still doing all they can to fend off that claim.

As a result, this state's GOP contest for the moment still promises more impact than in previous presidential frays -- even if Santorum does surprisingly well here.

For red-staters, we would ironically become the Empire State proving ground.

"There's no doubt Romney has picked up and had some success," acknowledged Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Smithtown), a potential Santorum delegate from Suffolk's 1st Congressional District. But he added that Romney has failed to rack up a clear series of state majorities.

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"Think back to '08. That went into June" for the Democrats, Fitzpatrick said. "There's still hope for Mr. Santorum -- and his delegates and supporters remain committed."

The Romney camp boasts 658 delegate votes, to 281 for Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator. In all, 1,144 are needed to lock up the nomination. The next round of voting in the national party contest takes place April 24, when Republicans in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island, with 231 delegates in all, go to the polls.

So even in the unlikely event that Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, captures all the delegate votes at stake that day, he'll still need backing in future primaries to reach the magic 1,144. Also in the race, as of Friday, are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with 135 delegates nationally so far, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, with 51.

Anthony Casale, an aide to state GOP Chairman Ed Cox, thus argues the case for the relevance of New York and its 95 delegates -- the biggest haul thus far.

"New York is always important to national candidates, because it is the media, financial and ethnic center of the world," Casale said.

Five days before New York's primary, state Republicans hold their spring fundraiser in Manhattan. Santorum and Gingrich are slated to attend, and Romney, uncommitted so far, may appear, too.

Romney, with many local GOP leaders already behind him, expects to run strongly in the state. A new Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday showed Romney leading 54-21 percent among likely New York Republican primary voters.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said it is rare for New York to play as much of a role as is likely this year, with the prospect that twin defeats for Santorum here and in his home state could prove the knockout combination. King said Thursday that he's been leaning toward Romney, and probably will formally declare his support before the primary.

Other prominent pro-Romney endorsements are expected as well -- while they still count.