Republican leaders voted overwhelmingly today to hold a Feb. 29 presidential primary election in the Old Dominion, which activists believe will attract major GOP candidates to the state for months to come.
"Virginia is rarely, if ever, a player" in presidential politics, said Michael E. Thomas, a Gilmore administration official who presented the case for the early primary to fellow members of the Republican Central Committee who met here this morning.
"Virginia ought to have a big say in who our eventual nominee is," said Thomas, vice chairman of the committee.
In a crucial test vote on a proposal that would have merely enhanced the GOP's time-honored system of caucuses, mass meetings and conventions, Thomas and his allies prevailed, rejecting it 65 to 8.
With a voice vote on the primary moments later, party leaders rebuffed one of their three national committee members, Morton C. Blackwell, a conservative activist from Arlington.
Blackwell had urged his fellow party leaders to reject the primary, saying, "It's bad for Virginia because it bunches in with too many other states at once" and would allow Democrats to invade an internal GOP election because the state has no voter registration by party.
Under the current schedule, Iowa would hold its much-watched caucuses on Feb. 7, New Hampshire its primary Feb. 22, along with Arizona that same day.
The presidential primaries in Delaware and South Carolina would come four days later, while Virginia joins North Dakota and Washington State three days after that.
The winner-take-all election in Virginia would bind 55 delegates to the primary's winner, which would be a nice bump for anyone in the GOP field heading into the 10-primary day on March 7, which includes Maryland, California and Florida.
John C. Watkins, a Republican state senator from suburban Richmond who wrote the legislation that made the GOP primary possible, said it instantly elevates the Old Dominion to first-rank status in the race for the White House.
"It brings candidates for national office to Virginia," Watkins said after today's voting.
Craig K. Bieber, executive director of the state Democratic Party, played down the importance of the new primary, saying it only will drain Republican money without having a big impact nationally.
Bieber also said this week that the Blackwell protest shows how deep the schisms are in the Virginia party, which could hurt in legislative elections this fall and a U.S. Senate race next year.
"Boy, they sure have a lot of fights, don't they?" Bieber said.
Over the years, Virginia Republicans have had mixed success in nominating candidates. On the one hand, they organized one of the free world's largest mass conventions here in 1994 to nominate Oliver L. North in a Senate race. But five years earlier, they spent a significant amount of money and energy in a bruising, multicandidate primary for governor.
Bieber said Democrats are sticking with their traditional caucus and convention system to send delegates to the national convention next year.
"Our process may be less exciting, but primaries are always a double-edged sword," Bieber said.
Mark A. Miner, a spokesman for Gov. James S. Gilmore III, hailed his party's primary decision, saying, "Candidates will now focus on the commonwealth. Virginia will be an important boost to any presidential campaign."
The February primary was especially sought by Virginia allies of presidential hopeful George W. Bush (R), the Texas governor whom Gilmore recently endorsed and who is coming here Tuesday for a big fund-raiser at a swanky downtown hotel.
By day's end, some GOP activists still harbored misgivings about the February election.
"We will have a tarmac campaign," said Richard Neel, a Fairfax County lawyer who chairs the party in the 8th Congressional District.
"Candidates will fly into Virginia, have a photo opportunity and then get back on their planes," Neel said.