Virginia GOP Surprised At Sudden Influence

By Justin Torres | July 7, 2008 | 8:25 PM EDT

Fairfax, VA ( - While only 56 delegates are at stake in Virginia's GOP primary, many voters in the Old Dominion seemed keenly aware of the importance of their primary as the candidates scramble to claim momentum going into next week's Super Tuesday voting.

"This election is maybe the most important in Virginia in years," said James Spivey, a retiree and military veteran at a polling site in the state's populous Washington, D.C. suburbs. "I'm proud Virginia gets to be so important."

While Arizona Senator McCain has made outreach to fellow veterans a mainstay of his insurgent campaign, Spivey planned to vote for his opponent, Texas Governor George W. Bush.

"I don't like it when I hear McCain making nasty comments about [Senator John] Warner and [Governor James] Gilmore," said Spivey.

Last Sunday at a rally at his Alexandria, VA, national headquarters, McCain pledged to defeat "the Gilmore-Warner machine," referring to the state senior Senator and popular Republican Governor, both of whom are supporting Bush.

"I say to the Gilmore-Warner machine, 'Hasta la vista, baby,'" McCain said at the rally.

At a rally in the state capital of Richmond Monday, Warner told Bush supporters, "Old John came into my back yard yesterday."

However, McCain supporter Virginia Marie Prescott told that she supported the Senator's comments Monday on the "intolerant agents" of the Christian right.

"We need to get our party out from underneath the Christian Coalition," said Prescott. "All they do is lose elections for us, and I'm glad Sen. McCain has the courage to stand up to Pat Robertson."

Polls in Virginia, which the Bush camp originally considered a "firewall" designed to be a safe Bush victory, have shown the race tightening in recent weeks. A recent Mason/Dixon Group poll shows McCain eight points behind Bush in Virginia.

Virginia is one of the most solidly Republican states in the nation, where all three constitutional offices, as well as the General Assembly and the state Senate are controlled by the GOP. In the past, that GOP lock - as well as Virginia's proximity to Washington, D.C., and high number of politically aware citizens - has meant that few presidential candidates have campaigned in the state. This is the first Virginia primary in years; usually, delegates are chosen in caucuses controlled by the party establishment.

Robert Macomber told that he couldn't remember the last time a Virginia primary was important to either party's nominating process.

"Usually, we got left out of the primary races," said Macomber. "I didn't want to have a primary. Who wants candidates tromping all through the state?"

Voters do not register by party in Virginia, meaning Democrats and independents can vote in the Republican primary. However, all voters are required to sign a pledge swearing not to vote in any other parties nominating process.

"I, the undersigned, state that I do not intend to participate in the nominating process of any other party than the Republican Party," reads the pledge.