By Michael D. Shear and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) swept Republican primaries in Virginia, Maryland and the District last night, defeating former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and adding to his vast delegate lead in the race to become his party's presidential nominee.
But even as he dominated the Potomac Primary, McCain lost conservatives in Virginia, as he has across the South and parts of the Midwest -- trailing Huckabee among that group and evangelicals as he attempts to unite a fractured Republican Party behind his candidacy.
Speaking to a few hundred supporters at a victory rally in Old Town Alexandria, McCain echoed Democrat Barack Obama, saying he was "fired up and ready to go." But he also hinted at a possible face-off with the senator from Illinois in the fall, saying Obama's message of hope is not enough.
"Hope, my friends, is a powerful thing," he told the crowd, sounding like Obama's Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), when he added: "To encourage a country with only rhetoric, rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people, is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude."
McCain did not directly address his challenge among conservatives but said: "I will not confine myself to the comfort of speaking only to those who agree with me. I will make my case to all the people."
Huckabee yesterday tapped into conservative discontent about McCain's moderate positions on immigration, campaign finance, taxes and energy. Among conservative voters in Virginia, Huckabee won by large margins, according to exit polls, though McCain carried the group in Maryland.
In Little Rock, Huckabee again refused to concede the race to his rival. He said the results showed "there's still a real sense in the Republican Party, a desire to have a choice, a desire to make sure voters who want a solid conservative, absolutely pro-life candidate still exist." Huckabee added that "the nomination is not secure until somebody has 1,191 delegates. That has not yet happened."
Still, Huckabee acknowledged that he could no longer become the party's standard-bearer by winning delegates in the upcoming contests. Instead, he said victory "may have to happen at a convention."
"We're disappointed, but we're not knocked out," Huckabee told reporters.
Despite trailing far behind in the delegate race, Huckabee has spent the past 10 days embarrassing the senator with election victories, including taking two of three contests Saturday. Before yesterday, seven states declared themselves unwilling to fall in line behind a wave of endorsements for McCain by members of the Republican establishment.
But McCain's wins last night, fueled by huge vote totals in Northern Virginia and in Maryland's Washington suburbs, gave him fresh ammunition to claim the prize he has sought twice this decade. The delegates he added gave him more than 800 of the 1,191 he needs to become the nominee when Republicans gather this summer at their convention in Minneapolis.
In his speech, McCain praised Huckabee's skills as a "communicator and advocate" and said "he certainly keeps things interesting -- a little too interesting at times tonight, I must confess."
Turnout among Republicans lagged historic numbers among their Democratic counterparts. In Virginia, almost twice as many Democrats voted in their primary than Republicans did in theirs.
McCain's reputation as a senator unafraid to challenge President Bush helped him win big among moderate voters, according to exit polls. But those same traits may have cost him support in rural areas, especially in Southwest Virginia, western Maryland and Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Maryland and Virginia voters who said their most important issue was choosing a candidate who shared their values preferred Huckabee by about 2 to 1. He also won big among evangelical voters and among those who call themselves very conservative.
Those voters turned out in large numbers yesterday. About a third of GOP voters in Virginia and Maryland called themselves very conservative, up from 18 percent in the Republican primary in 2000.
Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell, Huckabee's highest-profile backer in the state, said the results show that McCain "has some work to do to convince Republicans and independents that he's the man. . . . There are a lot of people still searching."
Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said: "Conservatives have not been ready to put their imprimatur on McCain. Inevitability has not translated into affection, and that is a continuing challenge for him."
A former Navy hero and Vietnam prisoner of war, McCain captured big margins in Maryland and Virginia among those who have served in the military. He bested Huckabee among voters who said their most important issues are terrorism and the Iraq war.
Regardless of which candidate voters supported, McCain far surpassed Huckabee as "most qualified" to be commander in chief, and as the most likely to beat the Democratic nominee in November.
Huckabee campaigned aggressively in Virginia this week, running numerous TV ads and appearing Sunday before more than 6,000 people at the church of the late Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg. He repeatedly appealed to supporters to ignore pronouncements that McCain should be crowned as the nominee.
That plea appeared not to pay off. McCain surpassed Huckabee among voters who made up their minds in the past week, according to exit polls.
In Loudoun County, Huckabee found support yesterday among some voters who said former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney had been their first choice, and among others who wanted to send a message. Former Romney supporter Mark Vayda, 82, chose Huckabee because he said McCain is weak on immigration.
Janice Schell, 45, of Purcellville, a self-described conservative Christian, voted for Huckabee even though she acknowledged that his chances are slim. "I'll support John McCain if he gets the nomination. I guess it's just to make a statement," she said.
In Virginia, McCain had the support of Sen. John W. Warner and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, and in Maryland he was backed by former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. McCain rallied in Richmond on Monday, after campaigning with Ehrlich in Annapolis, where McCain said he planned to be competitive in the heavily Democratic state in the general election.
McCain found backing from voters who commended his national security credentials and others who said former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani had been their first choice. In Arlington, Bill Briggs, 30, who has two brothers in the military, said he has supported McCain since 2000. "It just helps to have someone in the military who's been there, who's actually been through the worst of war," he said.
Ehrlich, who campaigned with McCain twice in the past week, said the senator is pragmatic about the challenge of pulling the party together. He said he hopes Huckabee stays in the race to keep McCain sharp for the general election.
"He knows he has some repairs to do, and he appears to be going about his business in a workmanlike way," said Ehrlich, who initially backed Giuliani.
At stake for Republicans in the Potomac Primary were 113 delegates. Virginia and the District are winner-take-all contests for Republicans; Maryland delegates are apportioned based on vote totals.
Staff writers Jonathan Mummolo, Theresa Vargas and Raymond McCaffrey contributed to this report.