In the end, not even The Force could save Sen. John McCain from the crushing power of George W. Bush in Virginia, as the Texas governor beat him by a large margin Tuesday. It was a marked contrast to last week's primaries in Arizona and Michigan, when McCain and his wife Cindy celebrated dual victories by pulling out light sabers and rallying supporters to join in the senator's "Luke Skywalker" insurgency against the Republican establishment.
But Virginians weren't having any of McCain's movie clichis on Tuesday. Instead, the state's conservative Republicans propelled Bush to an impressive victory.
McCain didn't go down without a fight, of course. In the weeks leading up to Tuesday's vote, McCain had cut Bush's once-daunting lead back a bit and had spent more time in the state than pundits had expected. But Bush had planned well in Virginia and was able to ride Gov. John Gilmore's deeply entrenched Republican political network to an easy victory.
Bush ran a major advertising campaign in Virginia for weeks, whereas McCain only focused on the state after his victories in Michigan and Arizona. McCain concentrated primarily on veterans and didn't start running his own ads until the last weekend before the vote.
McCain's campaign stops in the state -- one for a rally in Alexandria and another in Virginia Beach, where he attacked Pat Robertson -- weren't nearly enough to close the gap with Bush. McCain also suffered from having taken unfavorable positions in the past on issues of importance to Virginians, such as increasing cigarette taxes, ramping up the
number of flights into Reagan National Airport and criticizing the Navy's proposed "Seawolf" submarine program, which McCain described as a waste of government money.
However, it's likely that none of these issues figured as strongly in Tuesday's vote as the maverick senator's decision to attack a local hero. "McCain really hurt himself [Monday] when he threw down the gauntlet on the doorstep of Pat Robertson's headquarters," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling Research. "That stirred people up. Christian conservatives are about a third of [Virginia's] Republican vote in a normal turnout. Even before the event, he was down 4-to-1 among Christian conservatives, and it helps motivate Christian conservatives to turn out their voters if they're angry," he said.
Besides Gov. Gilmore, Bush was endorsed by virtually the entire local GOP hierarchy -- former Gov. George Allen, Sen. John Warner, Rep. Tom Davis and Attorney General Mark Early. Unlike the GOP establishment in Michigan, the Virginia party powers proved able to deliver their constituency for their man.
"This state is more establishment-oriented than even South Carolina," said
Stephen K. Medvic, assistant professor of politics at Old Dominion
University in Norfolk. "Voters are often content following what the elites
say, and the elites in the Republican Party here have said overwhelmingly
that they're going to vote for Bush. Gilmore has people working in every
precinct, in every district, and he is even popular with Democrats. It was
too little, too late, for McCain to come in and organize."
Initially, there was speculation that the state's first-ever open primary
would raise voter turnout. But unlike Michigan, where there was a concerted effort by some to get Democrats and independents to
vote for McCain, the Democratic Party discouraged its members from
participating in Virginia's GOP primary. Anyone could vote, so long as they signed a non-binding pledge not to
take part in another party's primary. Though McCain actively courted Virginia Democrats and independents, exit polls indicated that Republicans cast roughly two-thirds of the votes in the primary. In Michigan, by contrast, over half those casting votes were Democrats or independents.
"In Michigan, there was an early effort made to embarrass Gov. Engler,"
said Mason-Dixon's Coker. "You had blue-collar workers, union workers and blacks in Detroit coming out to vote for McCain, and Jeffrey Fieger buying air time. Virginia Democrats didn't try to do that, and they were smart not to do so. It wouldn't have been effective."
Bush's victories in South Carolina and Virginia indicate that he should now be able to count on a considerable advantage when the rest of the South goes to the polls on March 7 and 14.
"Virginia may forecast more closely states like Tennessee, North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi," said Coker. "It suggests that Bush will have a
pretty good March 14."