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IT'S THE PRIMARY PEAK, BUT NOT THE ENDGAME

In previous elections, they dubbed it Super Tuesday - the day when many states held presidential primaries and caucuses. This year, a whopping 24 states are holding contests, so pundits have been reaching for more potent adjectives. They're calling it Tsunami Tuesday or even Super Duper Tuesday.

Call it what you want, the biggest day in the 2008 presidential nominating process arrives this week with a total of 2,704 delegates at stake, according to the Associated Press. For Republicans, 1,023 will be awarded. For Democrats, it's 1,681.

What is Super Tuesday?

It's the peak in the nominating season. This year, Feb. 5, it's the earliest in history.

For the Democrats, 22 states will hold contests: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.

For the Republicans, 21 states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia.

What's at stake?

Nearly half of the delegates for each party. For the Republicans, 43 percent; for the Democrats, 42 percent. It could be a make-or-break day for some candidates. If one candidate wins big, the rest of the field may not be able to catch up. A Democrat needs 2,025 (of a total 4,049) delegates for the nomination. A Republican needs 1,191 (of a total 2,380).

Is this the biggest Super Tuesday ever?

Yes. The first was March 13, 1984, but the tradition took off on March 8, 1988, when 20 states went to the polls. Some say the clustered contest day was designed to benefit Southern moderates. Others say it's meant to be the first big test of national electability. Regardless, one big day brings clarity to the nominating process.

Can John McCain wrap up the Republican nomination?

Technically, no. Even if he wins every Republican contest and garners every delegate available, he would only reach a total of 1,116, or 75 short of the number needed for the nomination. However, because Republicans award delegates based on a winner-take-all approach within congressional districts or statewide, it's possible for McCain to end the day with such a substantial lead in the delegate count that his nomination is a foregone conclusion.

What about Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democrats?

Certainly not. Even though Clinton leads Barack Obama 261 to 190 for delegates, according to the Associated Press count, party rules likely will extend the campaign. Neither candidate can win all the delegates available even if he or she wins every state because Democrats award delegates based on a proportional vote in congressional districts or statewide. That means a candidate who wins 25 percent of the vote could expect to receive roughly 25 percent of the delegates in a congressional district or state. It also means that in a 51-49 finish, each candidate might get the same number of delegates. In other words, don't expect the Democratic race to be settled this week.

Are any other big primary days ahead?

Nowhere near as big as Tuesday. On March 4, four states - Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas and Vermont - hold primaries or caucuses.

Times news researchers John Martin and Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

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