After months of sitting on the sidelines, Texas finally gets its turn to make its mark on the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries Tuesday -- and could have a greater impact than many thought possible.
Experts predict that Texas voters will award Republican Mitt Romney enough delegates to clinch the presidential nomination Tuesday night. That would make it the second presidential election in a row in which the state has played that role: This is where John McCain clinched it in 2008.
This will also be where Democrats continue or halt the less-than-stellar showings that President Barack Obama has had in the past three primaries, against virtually unknown opposition.
Obama and Romney each have opponents on the Texas ballot, and each faces lingering criticism from factions within his respective party even though the general election race has effectively begun.
"Both candidates have elements within their party that are not pleased with their candidacy," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The question is whether Texans will vote for -- or against -- someone.
"People are filing protests with these votes," said Brandon Rottinghaus, an associate political science professor at the University of Houston.
"Some people are frustrated and perhaps are registering this as more or less a protest vote."
Obama, who wrapped up the Democratic nomination last month, was winning most states by large margins until this month.
Then, voters in Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia gave him victories but by much smaller margins, with opponents drawing 40 percent or more.
He faces three challengers on Texas' ballot.
At the same time, Romney officially has seven, including several who have dropped out and the last Texan in the race for the White House, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Lake Jackson.
Political observers say that opponents of the front-runners may get a share of the votes but that party loyalists will ultimately fall in line.
"At the end of the day, the vast majority of Democrats will support Obama and the vast majority of the Republicans will support Romney," Jillson said.
A drop in Democratic support for Obama seemed to start in West Virginia this month when, in an event that drew national attention, more than 40 percent of Democratic voters chose someone else.
Voters gave their nod to Keith Judd, who is serving a 210-month sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana for extortion.
He describes himself as an ex-superhero and says his father designed the atomic bomb.
Judd paid the $2,500 filing fee to get on the West Virginia ballot while serving his time.
"It just shows that within the Democratic primary, in conservative states, there is an anti-Obama vote," Jillson said. "Whoever was the alternative to Obama would have gotten that 40 percent.
"In Texas, where there are several candidates, any anti-Obama votes would be spread out to make it much less interesting than the results in West Virginia."
What happened in West Virginia turned out not to be an isolated incident. Last week, Obama drew just 58 percent of the vote in both the Kentucky and Arkansas primaries.
"It's hard to say what happened," Tarrant County Democratic Chairman Steve Maxwell said. "When you don't have something that stirs a lot of excitement within one of the party's primaries, there's not a lot of incentive for the base to go out and vote.
"When you don't have the issues, or the hotly contested races, the people who turn out are more fringe-type voters, not the base," he said. "It doesn't signal anything significant. It means nothing."
On Tuesday's ballot, Obama's opponents are Florida author and activist Darcy G. Richardson, Chicago activist Bob Ely, and Tennessee lawyer and Occupy Wall Street supporter John Wolfe.
Texas will long be remembered for the 2008 Democratic primary, when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but Obama earned more delegates through the state's caucus process.
The main question in Texas is likely, "How big will the Ron Paul effect be?"
Political observers estimate that Paul, a retired doctor with a loyal following, may pull anywhere from the upper single digits to somewhere in the double digits Tuesday.
His supporters are likely to make a big stand in his home state, especially since they want to be a force at state GOP conventions nationwide -- as they were during his 2008 presidential bid.
They are trying to become delegates for him at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August and are hoping for a brokered convention that could open the door for Paul to become the nominee -- or an opportunity to influence the party's platform.
This is Paul's third bid for the White House. His others were in 1988 as a Libertarian and in 2008 as a Republican.
"I think there will be a Ron Paul vote, probably in the mid- to high single digits," Jillson said.
"At earlier stages, there was a good bit of support for Newt Gingrich [and Rick Santorum] in Texas."
Romney has 1,084 delegates, according to estimates by The Associated Press; 1,144 are needed to clinch the nomination.
He could pick up those votes Tuesday in Texas, where 152 are up for grabs.
But he will have plenty of company on the ballot.
With him and Paul are Colorado home builder John Davis and a number of candidates who have withdrawn but remain on the ballot: Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Louisiana Gov. Charles "Buddy" Roemer, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
"There are so many names well-known like Bachmann, Santorum [and] Gingrich still on the ballot and likely they will all get some voter recognition but nothing quite as embarrassing as West Virginia to Obama this year," said Allan Saxe, an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Arlington.
"It's likely that Ron Paul will get a large percentage but not enough to embarrass Romney."
Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610