Five of the six Republican presidential candidates turned in enough signatures by today's deadline to secure a place on Virginia's primary ballot Feb. 29, putting the state in the thick of the battle for the presidential nomination.
Only Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) failed to get the 10,000 notarized signatures--including 400 from each of the state's 11 congressional districts--needed to get on the ballot. His campaign called Virginia's ballot procedures too restrictive. Only in New York, whose ballot rules have come under legal attack, is it harder to get on the ballot, said officials from several campaigns.
Virginia Republican leaders have been plotting for years to grab some of the national political spotlight by having the party's first binding primary. Both parties had a primary in 1988 but the Republican delegates were free to vote for any candidate at the national convention.
Democrats will use a state convention in the spring to choose presidential delegates. Republicans have chosen a winner-take-all primary in which delegates will be bound to support the primary winner on the first ballot at the national convention in Philadelphia.
Virginia has 56 delegates--the 10th most in the nation--to the GOP convention. And it will be the sixth primary in a heavily front-loaded calendar of votes beginning with New Hampshire on Feb. 1. Political strategists say the GOP nominee will likely be known March 7, when California, Maryland and several other states cast primary ballots just a week after Virginia does.
"I think Virginia will be very important," said Jeff Bell, a consultant to the campaign of conservative Gary Bauer. "It's the last thing before March 7. . . . I would be surprised if the winner of Virginia were not the nominee."
Virginia's ascendance as a player in the nomination fight stands to benefit Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who has Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III and the state's GOP establishment firmly behind him. Bush has a campaign office in Richmond with four paid staffers and soon plans to have a campaign chairman in every one of the state's counties and cities, said Quintin Kendall, executive director of Bush's campaign in Virginia.
"Virginia occupies a pretty critical spot for Governor Bush," Kendall said. "If Governor Bush does well in Virginia, as he expects to, it could shut the door on another candidate."
But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam, hopes to tap the state's hundreds of thousands of active-duty military personnel and veterans to mount a challenge. Political analysts also say that millionaire publisher Steve Forbes will have the money to campaign hard in Virginia even if he doesn't score a big victory in an earlier contest.
Forbes and former diplomat Alan Keyes filed their signatures shortly before the 5 p.m. deadline today.
McCain's forces turned in the highest number of signatures, topping 20,000 with the help of veterans and the campaign Web site, which had a feature that helped volunteers start petition drives.
"Veterans were coming out of the woodwork for John McCain," said Trey Walker, McCain's national field director. He predicted that McCain would make several campaign swings through the state as the primary nears.
Hatch's campaign will not visit after failing to post the needed signatures today. "It's unfortunate," said spokesman Jeff Flint. "I think a number of voters would like the opportunity to vote for Senator Hatch, and unfortunately they won't get that opportunity."