By Bill Turque, Ovetta Wiggins and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama's triumph over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in yesterday's Virginia primary, driven by overwhelming black support and an ability to attract whites and independents, suggests that he could be the candidate best positioned to carry the state for the Democrats in November for the first time in 44 years.
On the GOP side, the closely contested race between Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee showed a continued split between rural conservatives in the western part of the state and more-moderate eastern urban and suburban Republicans. McCain won handily in both Maryland and the District.
Obama's big wins in Maryland and the District provided more evidence of large African American populations coalescing around him. In Maryland, he also attracted working-class whites and independents and dominated even in the home bases of such prominent Clinton supporters as Gov. Martin O'Malley and Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson.
But most notable were the elements of Obama's victory in Virginia. Democratic leaders there think the party can win the state for the first time since 1964 with a presidential nominee who -- like James Webb in the 2006 Senate race and Timothy Kaine in the 2005 race for governor -- can convincingly win the growing Democratic base in Northern Virginia and reach out to rural voters.
Obama's appeal in a potential swing state such as Virginia strengthens his hand in his contest with Clinton in coming primary battles and possibly at the Democratic convention this summer. Electability in November is of vital concern to superdelegates, who can switch candidates, as well as to voters in future primaries and caucuses.
On a day of huge turnouts in the state, Obama garnered more votes than McCain and Huckabee combined. Only in the white rural southwest, in areas such as Wise County, did Clinton prevail after arguing that she was better able to lift the fortunes of the economically depressed region with jobs and health-care coverage.
As he has in other states, Obama did well with independents in Virginia, carrying them by a 2-to-1 ratio.
Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist Robert Holsworth said the numbers point to Virginia's continued evolution into a state that will be up for grabs in the fall. He said the results also deflate one of Clinton's principal arguments: that Obama has won only in states that Democrats are unlikely to carry in the fall. With his win in Virginia, that is no longer the case.
"Virginia is becoming a fully purple state," Holsworth said. "It is a state that has changed enough that it can legitimately be a 50-50 state that either party could win," he said.
The results show Virginia's Republican ranks have a decided regional split. Huckabee rolled up huge margins against McCain in the conservative state's rural west and southwest. In Northern Virginia's Fairfax and Arlington counties and Alexandria, however, McCain won almost 70 percent of the vote, offsetting any advantage for Huckabee elsewhere.
Among voters identifying themselves as "very conservative," Huckabee held a commanding lead; among moderates, McCain dominated, exit polls show.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said that even with McCain's win, the numbers suggest serious trouble. "It doesn't matter that McCain wins. The fact that it's this close is a disaster for him," he said.
Northern Virginia Republican leaders said last night that despite the numbers, McCain's status as the putative nominee remains unchanged. "It's time for us to get behind McCain," Fairfax County Republican Chairman James Hyland said. "You're either for McCain or you risk handing over the White House to a very liberal element of the Democratic party."
In the District, Obama captured 75 percent of the vote. The turnout was high but well below the city's record of 49 percent for a presidential primary -- in 1984, when Jesse Jackson was running. McCain topped Huckabee in the District, with 68 percent of the small GOP vote.
Ward 3, which is in Northwest Washington and has a tradition of activism among white women, was thought to be an area where Clinton could go toe-to-toe with Obama. But yesterday, the predominantly white and affluent ward looked like Obama territory based on the sheer numbers of signs and poll volunteers, said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who has endorsed Clinton.
"I'm getting a sense in Ward 3 that she'll run competitively, but she may lose," Cheh said before noon.
In Maryland, even Clinton supporters said they weren't really surprised by the size of Obama's lead in a state with a high proportion of African American voters and liberal whites in the Washington suburbs.
"If this tells us anything, it's that black folks are the spine of the Democratic Party here," said former Prince George's county executive Wayne K. Curry, who endorsed Clinton. "Maybe this is the lesson that drives it home."
Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D), an Obama supporter, said he never doubted that there would be a high turnout among African Americans for Obama. He said he felt an energy surrounding Obama's campaign that he has not felt before during an election.
"It was like a Super Bowl level of excitement," Ivey said. "People are talking about it in the grocery stores, in schools. It's amazing. It really is."
Obama took almost 80 percent of the vote in Baltimore and almost two-thirds in the Washington suburbs of Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
Ron Lester, a pollster and political consultant who lives in Silver Spring, said the region's demographics played a role in Obama's win and in the high voter turnout.
In the District, "you have to throw in the Fenty machine," Lester said, referring to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his supporters. "They know how to get out the vote. They have an apparatus that is effective."
In Maryland. O'Malley and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.) were among Clinton's biggest supporters. The big winners were first-term Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who led Obama's Maryland campaign.
Kaine was among the first governors to endorse Obama. Also figuring prominently in Obama's Virginia campaign is Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, the state's sole African American member of Congress.