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Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (L) makes a point as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looks on during the NBC News debate.
The increasingly tight battle for the Republican nomination has reached the Golden State.
For Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, the "gold" lies in the form of California's 172 delegates, the most of any state.
Given the latest polls, the distribution of those delegates could well make or break a nomination.
The latest Field Poll has the numbers: Mitt Romney, who once towered over Rick Santorum by formidable percentages, now leads the former Pennsylvania senator by just 6 points.
In fact, it's a statistical tie once the plus/minus factor is thrown into the mix. More than a shriveled lead, the Field poll shows the momentum in California going to Santorum-at least for now.
There's another, deeper story that accompanies the numbers. California's Republicans have long fallen into two camps--the fiscal conservatives and the evangelical conservatives. The division occurs elsewhere, but it particularly raw here.
The fiscal conservatives are concerned mostly about things like taxing, spending, trade and other economic matters. Their candidate is the sensible, financially successful Mitt Romney.
The evangelical conservatives focus mostly on matters such as abortion, faith, creationism, and other social issues. Their candidate is the passionate, committed Rick Santorum who relies on his religious beliefs as his road map through life.
These two groups usually find a way to join forces against the Democrats, who are cast as some combination of big spenders, enemies of free enterprise, and heathens.
But not now.
The fiscal conservatives and social conservatives are fighting for the Republican party's soul, and the greatest battle for that prize lies ahead in California.
It's more than a struggle for delegates.
The eventual winner will stamp his candidacy at the Republican national convention with the values that get him the nomination. Only then will we really know the tenor of fall battle between him and Democrat Barack Obama.
For now, strap on your seat belts. It's going to get rough and ugly between these two candidates and their followers, and we're going to be seeing it and experiencing it up close and in person.