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Va. Race a Litmus Test for McCain

The Republican and Democratic presidential candidates make a final appeal to voters before the "Potomac Primaries" of Maryland, Virginia and D.C. on Feb. 12, 2008.

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By Amy Gardner and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 9, 2008

When U.S. Sen. John McCain came to Virginia eight years ago for the Republican presidential primary, he called two of Virginia's most prominent religious leaders, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, "agents of intolerance."

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Now, McCain is back. But unhealed wounds remain among conservative voters in Virginia and across the nation, challenging the Arizona Republican to make peace with a voting bloc he will need if he is to win the general election in November.

Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are preparing for Tuesday's first-ever regional primary, when voters in Virginia, Maryland and the District will go to the polls. But with the national GOP paying scant attention to Democrat-rich Washington and Maryland, Virginia stands out as the first bellwether as to whether McCain can heal those wounds, political and religious observers say.

"This is the acid test for McCain," said Charles Dunn, dean of the School of Government at Regent University, a Christian school in Virginia Beach founded by Robertson. "Huckabee comes here, and he speaks their language. Virginia is critical for John McCain."

McCain has found rapprochement with key conservative leaders in Virginia, including Falwell before he died last year. But former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, is expected by many to fare well with the estimated one-third of Virginia adults who call themselves evangelical Protestants. Just how many of them turn to Huckabee on Tuesday could help determine the level of unity and momentum that McCain will carry into the fall campaign.

"McCain's in this enviable yet curious position," said Robert D. Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University. "He's essentially become the presumptive nominee, but he has yet to close the deal with all the conservatives."

McCain's advocacy of granting illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, his refusal to back a national ban on same-sex marriage and his support of campaign finance restrictions have caused small-government, social-values conservatives to bristle in recent years. But he is strong in other ways -- on national security, eliminating waste in government and keeping taxes down -- that could be more important to Republican voters, even conservative ones, some GOP leaders say.

The national Republican Party is scrambling to unify the GOP faithful behind McCain, and Virginia leaders are doing the same. On Thursday, former governor and U.S. senator George Allen, a longtime icon of Virginia's conservative movement, endorsed McCain. And Friday, U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, who has served on Regent's board, threw their support behind the front-runner.

Those conservatives join moderate Virginia Republicans such as Sen. John W. Warner and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who hold leadership posts on McCain's Virginia team. The message is clear: Republicans must unite behind their strongest candidate if they are to defeat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in November.

"John McCain is the strongest candidate for us to win the war against terrorism and succeed in the war with Iraq," said Allen, who had supported former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) for president. "He is the most consistent and credible person to carry this torch for all America."

McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, is sure to do well among Virginia's sizable military population. Even in 2000, when President Bush defeated him by 53 percent to 44 percent in the state primary, McCain won the Virginia Beach-based 2nd Congressional District, which has the highest concentration of military voters of any district in the nation. McCain also won the Northern Virginia-based 8th District, where there is a large military population.

McCain's camp is also optimistic that he can pick up voters who had supported Mitt Romney for his economic message -- including social conservatives who view the economy as a more critical issue. He might also pick up evangelical votes for his tough stand against terrorism.

"We think the most of governor Huckabee, and obviously his background is one that would fit with evangelicals in Virginia because he was a Baptist preacher," said Brett O'Donnell, a former close associate of Falwell's. "We just think that John McCain is better prepared to handle the war on radical Islamic extremism."

It is in the heartland of Virginia's conservative base -- the southern and southwestern areas -- where the state's evangelical voters are more likely to choose Huckabee than McCain, observers said.

Michael Farris, a leader of the national evangelical and home-schooling movements, said yesterday that rank-and-file evangelicals are behind Huckabee. Farris, who lives in Purcellville, said he thinks the national evangelical leadership has been "bizarre" in advocating for Romney and then McCain, who supported embryonic stem cell research and opposed a federal marriage amendment.

Farris, founder and chancellor of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, doesn't buy the narrative that McCain is the inevitable nominee and said that evangelicals are angry over the feeling that they were sold out by the GOP.

"This is a 'get to the back of the bus' statement to evangelicals," he said. " 'We'll take your votes, but if you dare to rise up to be a leader, we will crush you.' That's what it feels like to most of us. The combination of McCain's support of amnesty for illegals and his other views, I think he is very vulnerable to a conservative challenge."

The ultimate risk is not that conservatives would turn out for Clinton or Obama -- but that their equivocation on McCain would keep them home in a general election in which every vote could count. Prominent evangelical leader James Dobson said Thursday that he won't vote if McCain is the GOP nominee.

"I've had some significant concerns," said McDonnell, the state attorney general. "I hope he will listen to leaders like me who are fiscal and social conservatives to hopefully modify some of his policy positions."

Moderate Republicans say they worry that McCain will be pushed too far to the right. If that happens, it could alienate independent voters, who will be crucial in November.

"To the extent that he seems to cave to these folks, you start losing independents," Davis said. "If you're a Republican right now, you kind of need everybody. But you can't be held hostage."

Staff writers David Nakamura and William Wan contributed to this report.


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