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It doesn't make a lot of sense that the presidential spotlight often shuns our part of the world. New York is diverse and populous, the Big Town ranks as the country's economic and media capital, and the upstate cities are not exactly Podunks, either.

But in the world of primaries, the little Iowas and New Hampshires of the world hog all of the attention. It's a matter of timing. Iowa and New Hampshire jump first out of the box; New York's April primary usually merits also-ran status.

But is there just a hint that New York's April 24 presidential primary may play a role in the GOP selection process after all? The Politics Column gingerly floated the idea back on Jan. 8 frankly, just for the heck of it. But a former Pennsylvania senator named Rick Santorum is making that prospect even more real -- and all the more tantalizing.

Now, the thought of a showdown featuring Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul in a major venue like New York is raising the unfamiliar prospect of a "real state" primary.

Some Republican observers even fantasize over a convention with no clear leader, brokered in a back room. Just like the old days, without the smoke-filled part.

New Yorkers have glimpsed real primary campaigns only rarely. Bob Dole, Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan worked New York hard in 1996, with Dole pretty much wrapping up things by winning here and in seven other states in early March. Then Tim Russert hosted a New York primary edition of "Meet the Press" from Buffalo exactly four years later with appearances by former Sen. Bill Bradley from the Dems and the GOP's John McCain.

But this year could prove even more relevant if the current state of the race continues -- that is, if no clear leader emerges. Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy, who could assume a major role as leader of upstate's largest Republican organization, predicts the March 6 "Super Tuesday" contests will tell the story. That's when Republicans in Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia will weigh in.

"That's going to tell us whether or not New York is in play," he said.

Kevin Hardwick is among those who hope it is.

He dwells in the theoretical world as a professor of political science at Canisius College and in the real world as a Republican county legislator from the City of Tonawanda. He has emerged as Santorum's go-to guy in Western New York, even if there is no money involved and campaign headquarters is Hardwick's desk.

"His stock is rising," Hardwick said a few days ago. "Every day things are getting better."

This week, Hardwick will send to Santorum headquarters a list of delegates from all three local congressional districts to attend the Republican National Convention in Tampa, including himself.

He thinks true conservatives and tea party types still yearn for a Romney alternative and, true to Hardwick form, makes his case by recalling one of the former Massachusetts governor's famous awkward pronouncements.

"They're looking for an authentic conservative as opposed to a 'severe conservative,' " he said.

Hardwick knows Santorum's new status brings new problems. Romney forces will now target the former senator, he predicted, much as his super PAC pals blasted Gingrich out of Iowa's waters.

They will attempt to "define" Santorum (pol-speak for negative ads). That means New Yorkers can anticipate the rare treat of political ads saturating the airwaves. And we're talking millions of dollars here.

"The chances are greater that New York will matter this time," Hardwick said, adding his guy may very well matter, too.

"For a while, nobody was taking him seriously," he said. "Now he's 'severely' doing well."

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com