In politics, straw polls often are articles of faith for junkies and can be a test of strength for a candidate at a snapshot in time.
For the two Fairfax County Democrats competing for their party's nomination for lieutenant governor, did this month's poll mean anything? That depends on whether you're Leslie L. Byrne or J. Chapman Petersen.
Byrne, a former congresswoman and state senator from the Falls Church area, pulled in 54 percent of the vote in a straw poll of about 320 party activists at the annual St. Patrick's Day fundraiser hosted by Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly. Petersen came in second with 33 percent. Del. Viola O. Baskerville of Richmond and Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, whose base is in Virginia's rural southwest corner, were in the single digits.
Petersen, 37, is an energetic trial lawyer who unseated veteran Republican House leader John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. four years ago with shoe leather and a resonant message that the incumbent wasn't paying enough attention to his district. In his bid for lieutenant governor, Petersen has been campaigning across Virginia for a year, calling himself the "moderate Democratic alternative" in the June 14 primary field. Byrne, 58, has the longer political résumé, but Petersen has out-raised everyone in the race, with $313,707 in the bank as of December, compared with Byrne's $109,416, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
But as he campaigns as a moderate to increase his appeal statewide, is Petersen losing his way in his home base? Some Fairfax Democrats think so.
"Chap's been a great advocate for education," said John Jennison, a civic activist from Mantua and constituent of Petersen's who says he is uncommitted. "But Leslie represents the true values of individual liberties. . . . Chap's developed a pattern of increasing the government's role in the decision-making process, especially in a woman's decision about her body."
In other words, some Democrats are unhappy with his voting record on abortion rights and some other social issues.
Petersen voted for legislation making the killing of a fetus in an attack on a pregnant woman a separate crime and for a bill requiring a woman to be given information that a fetus can feel pain during an abortion. But he voted against several measures to allow local governments to adopt ordinances requiring abortion clinics to be licensed.
He does not support civil unions for gay couples and voted for a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to between men and women.
"Based on some of those votes, he certainly does have a challenge to do with a number of Northern Virginia Democrats," said Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), Virginia's first openly gay state lawmaker.
Petersen spokesman Mark Bergman said the candidate "isn't just running in Fairfax."
"His moderate views are in line with the views of most Virginians," Bergman said, noting that Petersen believes that abortion "should be a legal, safe option for women."
Bergman dismissed the straw poll as an unrepresentative sample of voters. "We're focused on the poll that counts," in the June primary, he said. Petersen was not available for an interview, Bergman said.
Three hundred people cannot predict the outcome of a statewide primary. But it's the party faithful who vote in such elections -- activists rather than moderates. And Connolly's fundraiser, at the Kena Shriners temple off Route 50, was smack in the middle of Petersen's district.
Byrne hasn't wasted any time using the straw poll to her advantage, streaming the results across her campaign Web site.
"When you've been in politics for 20 years, you've got a lot of friends," she said in an interview. "People know that I will stand up for a woman's reproductive privacy." Voters "want someone who will stand up for Democratic values," she added.
Byrne, who had one of the General Assembly's most liberal voting records, might have trouble selling her message to Virginia's more conservative Democrats.
Both candidates know they need to win a large number of votes in Northern Virginia to seize the nomination. Political observers say the battle between Byrne and Petersen could open the door for Baskerville, who is expected to do well in Richmond and Hampton Roads and stands to benefit if the Fairfax candidates split the vote in the Washington suburbs.