Surprise in store for Republican race?

People in South Carolina look at sand sculpture depicting Republican presidential candidates (L-R): Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, former candidate Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Will there be a hot political night this summer in Florida's Tampa?

The Republican party's rolling roadshow of internal democracy known as the primaries has many surreal aspects.

One of the oddest is that it is all about winning votes for a contest that no-one thinks is going to happen.

Except now things are so feverish that there is chatter that the vote might actually take place.

If Mitt Romney loses the Michigan primary on 28 February, that talk will reach a new and shriller pitch.

There will be desperate calls for a new candidate to enter the race. One anonymous but apparently senior senator has told ABC that he will lead the charge.

That would inevitably lead to a political brawl in Florida's summer heat.

Let me explain.

The state-by-state caucus and primary contests are all about winning delegates to vote at the Republican Convention in Tampa, Florida, in August. That is in theory.

In practice it hasn't actually reached a vote since 1972, although that contest was pretty sewn up.

But further in the past, conventions were nail-biting affairs with all the decorum of a wild-west cattle sale.

Desperate and sweaty men pace around each other in hotel suites, threatening and tempting by turns.

City and state power brokers dangled "their" delegates, holding out for more bourbon and bigger bribes.

In every race since then it has operated on a "it's-a-knockout" principle.

The convention hasn't had to choose because long before the summer one candidate has emerged as a clear winner, and the others have dropped out.

This time it is possible that neither Mitt Romney, nor Rick Santorum, nor Newt Gingrich nor Ron Paul will have enough votes to look like a clear winner.

Equally, none may look so much like a loser that they are forced out. That is partly down to the personalities and dynamics this time around.

But it is also compounded because the Republicans have moved from "winner takes all" to "proportional representation". So states divide up their delegates between the candidates making a knockout victory less likely.

There's also the separate, but linked, theory that if none of them looks like a winner someone else, like Jeb Bush, will emerge and take them all on.

This is hard to do, playing by the rule book, but anything is possible if the political will is there.

Wise heads now point out that every four years someone will write up the "brokered convention" story, but it doesn't happen.

This is true. But it is not a prediction.

In every British election I have covered, there has been a flurry when someone talks up the chances of a coalition with the Lib-Dems, or at least highlighted the dilemma for the party.

In the 20 years I reported on British politics it never happened. Then in 2010 it did.

There is very little smart money on a Florida showdown.

But it isn't at all obvious how, and when, this race will end. I wouldn't rule out the answer being a hot night in Tampa.