Missouri's lengthy method of allotting Republican presidential delegates begins Tuesday night in a single rural county in the southwest corner of the state. It won't culminate until June, at a state convention that finally will settle which candidate gets the bulk of Missouri's 52 delegates.
For many rank-and-file Republicans, the state's 2012 presidential selection process can be summed up in one word.
"Confusing," said Janet Philpott, 62, who lives near the southern Missouri town of Mansfield.
"I would feel more comfortable, I think, if they had a little more order to it," interjects her husband, Ed Philpott, 63.
The Philpotts said they were among more than 250,000 Missouri residents who voted in last month's Republican presidential primary, won easily by the only candidate to campaign for it, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. But that election didn't count toward awarding any delegates to the Republican National Convention.
So the Philpotts, who back Santorum, are trying something new. They plan to attend a county Republican caucus this weekend, where some of the participants will be chosen to attend one of eight regional conventions on April 21 and some will be picked to go to the Republican state convention on June 2.
Twenty-four of Missouri's Republican presidential delegates will be bound to particular candidates at those April meetings. An additional 25 presidential delegates will be bound at the June convention. The three other delegates are reserved for state party officials, who are free to support whoever they want.
In essence, Missouri's county caucuses are like the first round of a basketball tournament. Participants who win get to move on to subsequent rounds, where the actual trophies are on the line.
Unlike in some other states, there will be no way to know whether Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, or Texas Congressman Ron Paul wins Missouri's local Republican caucuses. That's because the caucus participants chosen to advance to the next round do not have to pledge their support for any particular presidential candidate.
In fact, the Republican chairwoman in Barry County, which is holding the state's first caucus at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, said she hopes the meeting doesn't devolve into a debate about which presidential candidate is best. Chairwoman Barbara White, who describes herself as a reluctant Romney supporter, said she hopes caucus participants will approve two slates of 14 people to attend the district and state meetings based on their general reputation as good, trustworthy Republicans.
The presidential candidates are nonetheless taking the caucuses seriously. Romney was to campaign Tuesday in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas - his first visits to Missouri this year. Santorum was in Springfield and Cape Girardeau this past weekend, and pledged to return to Missouri again before the caucuses. Paul campaigned in St. Charles and Springfield over the weekend.
All are hoping to spur a large number of their supporters to attend the caucuses, thus increasing their chances of their supporters advancing to the next round of meetings at which delegates actually will be bound to particular candidates.
Most of Missouri's counties will be holding their Republican caucuses Saturday morning, but local officials had the discretion to set an alternative time. White said Barry County chose Tuesday night in hopes of drawing more people - perhaps a total of 150 - than on the weekend. Chariton County, in north-central Missouri, set its caucus for Thursday night. Wayne County, in southeast Missouri, scheduled a Friday night caucus. And Republicans in St. Louis city and Kansas City's home of Jackson County will be caucusing a week later - on March 24 - to avoid interfering with St. Patrick's Day festivities.
Although the caucuses are open to anyone, they are expected to draw fewer participants than February's nonbinding presidential primary, said Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.
Among those skipping the caucuses will be John A. Hartwig Jr., a 69-year-old accountant from Clayton who said he voted for Paul in the primary but can't afford to take a weekend off work during tax-preparation season to attend Saturday's local Republican caucus. Hartwig is somewhat frustrated by Missouri's multi-step process for picking a presidential nominee.
"I assume you have one primary and one general election," Hartwig said. "It just seems inefficient."