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Brace yourself.

Forty-three presidential nominating contests in 24 states. Channel upon channel of the commentators talking about exit polls. The biggest prize of the night — California — being decided well after most viewers have headed for bed. A total of 3,156 delegates allocated under arcane rules on what could be the most significant night of the 2008 campaign to date.

This is a guide of things to look for on Tuesday night — key states, trends, interesting demographic developments, campaign-ending or -extending developments — starting from when the first polls close (Georgia at 7 p.m.) to when the voting is completed in California at 11 p.m. Eastern time.

There are two ways to approach the results. The first is old-fashioned: which candidates rack up the most states. But this is about more than popular vote totals; the point of these contests is to allocate delegates to the national conventions.

Thus, the big question is how much attention to pay to the results map on television — lighted up with, say, states that have swung to Sen. John McCain’s column — and how much attention to pay to the delegate counter. The answer is pay attention to both, though put somewhat more focus on states for the Republicans and put somewhat more on delegates for the Democrats. The delegate count might matter more officially, but the state results could count more politically, and that will be the central tension of the night.

Democrats allocate most of their delegates proportionately; candidates are awarded a cut of the delegate pie based on their percentage of the vote. It is likely that the losing candidate will still get a substantial share of the delegates.

Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton will no doubt start claiming state victories as soon they can — with the goal of trying to get on television and grab the front-runner spotlight — but those results will probably remain largely symbolic. Assuming the race remains close, what matters going forward is who gets the most pledged delegates.

Republicans delegate selection rules are different. In eight of the 21 Republican contests, the winner gets the delegates — no dividing up the spoils. What that means is that it is going to be easy for a candidate to build up a big delegate lead on Tuesday night and, combined with winning some big states, credibly declare himself the party’s presumptive nominee. That is precisely what McCain is looking to do.

Keep in mind that the winner of the states is probably going to become known well before the delegate counts are finished, and that is going to color the way the results are reported on television and in newspapers. The outcome in California, the biggest prize of the night and a major factor in either way of judging the night, is not going to be known until the wee hours.

“Don’t be rushed into making an early judgment without California,” said Robert Shrum, a Democratic political analyst. “You have to resist the pre-California spin unless someone is winning like 16 of the 22 states.”