Long written off as too late to matter, California’s Republican primary June 5 may turn out to matter a lot. A new Field Poll shows former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum just six points behind front-runner Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.

California’s mother lode of 172 delegates has long been considered Romney’s firewall against a contested or even brokered national convention in Tampa, Fla., in August. A contested convention is the ultimate nightmare scenario for the GOP, which has savored this year as its best chance since Jimmy Carter to deny a second term to an incumbent Democratic president.

“It’s a different world than it was just two or three weeks ago,” said Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo.

Romney leads with 31 percent of the sample of 400 registered Republican voters, followed by Santorum with 25 percent and Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian Texan, coming in third with 16 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has fallen to fourth place with 12 percent, while 14 percent are undecided.

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