President Carter rolled to another easy victory over Edward M. Kennedy yesterday, smashing the Massachusetts senator by almost 8 to 1 in a series of Democratic Party meetings throughout Virginia.
Preliminary totals showed Carter with 80 percent of yesterday's turnout, Kennedy 13 percent and 7 percent uncommitted, enough to give the president at least 57 of the state's 64 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
Kennedy appeared to have won only five of the Virginia delegates, and the presidential choice of two other delegates was uncertain.
The White House reacted with joy to the outcome, calling it "a decisive victory" that will increase the odds against Kennedy gaining the party's nomination this summer.
"Preliminary estimates of the final Virginia vote indicate that Senator Kennedy will now have to capture 62 percent of the delegates in the remaining primaries and caucuses in order to gain the nomination," said deputy White House press secretary Rex Granum.
Kennedy's only glimmer of success came in Northern Virginia where Democrats gave him about 40 percent of their support -- enough to give the senator four of the area's 10 delegates to the convention. Southside Virginia's 5th congressional district also appeared likely to give Kennedy one of its four delegates.
The president's supporters shut out Kennedy in several major urban areas including Hampton, Newport News and Portsmouth, and kept the senator under the 20 percent cut-off figure for delegates in Richmond and Norfolk, two cities with large black Democratic populations where he had been expected to score.
"It's a good victory -- much better than we expected," said George Gilliam, Carter's state campaign coordinator who earlier in the week had said he would settle for 75 percent of the vote. "I think we've found some of that 'Big Mo' George Bush lost."
Kennedy state coordinator Ernest Kessler, who last week predicted Kennedy would pull up to 20 percent of the delegates, claimed he was satisfied with yesterday's results. "I'm pleased we did better than the senator's done in other southern states."
Yesterday's local caucuses were the first of a series of party meetings that culminate with the state convention in Richmond May 16-17. But Carter's victory margin yesterday was so formidable that it virtually rules out any attempt by Kennedy supporters to challenge his delegate total between now and the convention.
Under the Virginia Democratic rules, Kennedy had to poll at least 20 percent of the voters attending one of yesterday's meetings to obtain delegates to the state's 10 congressional district meetings in April. At these meetings the senator will have to pull at least 20 percent again to pick up some delegates to the national convention in New York in July. Kennedy backers were shut out yesterday in seven of the state congressional districts.
Kessler said that Kennedy's defeat in Illinois last Tuesday caused a number of Virginia supporters to defect to Carter or become uncommitted for fear they would otherwise forfeit their chance of winning enough votes to attend the state party convention in May.
Kessler contended that Carter was helped unfairly by the state's party leadership. He particularly cited the party's invitation to Rosalynn Carter to speak at the annual Democratic Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner earlier this month. Kennedy was not invited to the affair.
"In a state where the nomination process is controlled by the parties instead of by the state government, it is important for the state party to be neutral, impartial and fair," said Kessler. "That was not the case in Virginia."
But Robert L. Watson, who is in charge of party headquarters in Richmond, called Kessler's charges "sour grapes because they [the Kennedy campaigners] lost."
Carter, who as a contender for the Democratic nomination four years ago had support largely from the party's feisty but small liberal wing, this time won solid backing from Democratic leaders ranging from conservative House Speaker A.L. Philpott to populist former lieutenant governor Henry Howell.
In Northern Virginia, where Kennedy made his best showing in the state, neither the Massachusetts senator nor the president seemed to inspire a passionate following.
"I'm not enthusiastic for Kennedy, but how could I stand up for Carter with the prime interest rate at 18 percent?" said Karl J. Ingebritsen, a Reston real estate contractor who was elected a Kennedy delegate yesterday from Fairfax County's Centreville district.
The Centreville meeting was one of several in the county where Kennedy ran nearly equal to Carter. The senator picked up slightly more delegates than the president at two of the eight Fairfax caucuses but not by wide enough margins to carry the county.
At the Dranesville district meeting, held at a high school just a mile from Kennedy's McLean home, Virginia Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb said he wasn't surprised when Carter only picked up 23 delegates to 20 for Kennedy.
"I expected it would be quite close, and it was," said Robb, who supported Carter and presided over the gathering. "Kennedy has many friends around here."
Despite the closer and more spirited contests in the Washington suburbs, the turnout at all 17 of the mass meetings in the area yesterday was far less than four years ago. In many of those caucuses, for example, Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) topped Carter by slight margins.
Few of those who attended yesterday's meetings as uncommitted voters were able to muster the required 20 percent of the caucus to field their own delegate candidates. Instead, they and a handful of Brown supporters either joined forces with the Carter or Kennedy camps or else went home.
But in Arlington, where Kennedy garnered an unexpected 42 percent of the vote to 58 percent for Carter, the senator's supporters were jubilant. Many said they had expected their candidate to pull no more than a quarter of the vote.
"There's just no alternative to Carter," said Arlington County Board member John W. Purdy, one of a host of local officials backing the president. "I don't think there's anybody here who's particularly pleased with Carter's performance, but I would rather have Jimmy Carter than any Republican who has a chance.
The Alexandria meeting provided one of the more boisterous gatherings, with Kennedy supporters claiming a moral victory despite a 60 percent turnout on behalf of Carter delegates.
State Department spokesman Hodding Carter III was among those who joined the strong Carter contingent. The Alexandria resident, however, could not hide his boredom as the tedious process of delegate selection dragged on.
"I brought my son to see how this works," said Carter. "This whole thing might put you into a coma."
In contrast to party caucuses in most other places yesterday, the Alexandria meeting actually offered a forum for supporters of the various candidates to make a pitch for votes -- especially among the uncommitted.
Republicans, who will hold their state party convention in Richmond on June 6-7, have begun holding mass meetings to choose their party's convention delegates. Meetings in Fairfax County begin Tuesday night. The Republican National Convention will be held in Detroit in July.
But it is far from certain whether Carter can translate his support among state Democrats into a victory in November. He narrowly lost here by 51 to 49 percent to former President Ford four years ago when Virginia was the only southern state to deny Carter a win.