Virginia gets its say in presidential race Tuesday

abogues@vagazette.com

On Tuesday, Virginia gets its say in the presidential race as voters choose candidates for the Republican and Democratic primaries.

In recent years, the Commonwealth has become a sought-after prize in the fall general election, moving to battleground status after years of reliably favoring the GOP.

Political analysts and commentators, as well as elected officials said local voters will pay close attention as they evaluate their choices in a race that has largely focused on national issues.

But on Tuesday, Virginia will be among 12 states voting, meaning it won't get nearly as much close attention as it will get during the fall campaign, political analysts agreed.

And the bombastic tone of the race so far may not fit with the traditional "Virginia Way" of statesmanlike politics and attention to local issues.

"It feels like a drive by, I don't hear people at grocery stores, arguing about how they'll cast their votes," said Tucker Martin, a former spokesman for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who most recently worked for a super PAC associated with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

"It's like the circus is coming into town for one day only, come in and buy your ticket. But this will be a much more engaged race in Virginia than it is now," Martin said.

On the Republican side, business mogul and reality television star Donald J. Trump has emerged as the front runner according to local polls, and Hillary Clinton is favored by Democrats according to RealClearPolitics polling averages.

A host of candidates vying for the presidency have campaigned in Virginia in recent days, including Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio; Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt. Rubio will be in Virginia Beach on Sunday. Clinton is scheduled to be in Hampton Roads on Monday.

Democratic race

Hillary Clinton has jumped out to a commanding lead over Sanders in most polls of Virginia for the upcoming primary, buoyed largely by robust support from the African American community, which comprises a major portion of the Democratic electorate in a primary race.

Black voters are expected to compose one third of the electorate in the Democratic primary, according to Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

"She's probably going to win enough white votes, although Sanders will have the edge with white liberals," Skelley said. "Sanders' key battleground is going to be Northern Virginia. That area of the state has the most white liberals of any area of the state."

Clinton has lined up support from key statewide leaders, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton family ally, and Sen. Tim Kaine, who has been mentioned as a possible running mate for her in the fall. Kaine was an early supporter of Clinton's opponent in the 2008 primary, now President Barack Obama. But he said during this cycle, from watching her as Secretary of State, he decided she would be the "best person to be president" during the 2016 race.

Kaine, a former Virginia governor, who was vetted by the Obama campaign for the vice presidency in 2008, said he didn't expect to be tapped as Clinton's running mate. "I'm not looking for a job," Kaine said.

Kaine said voters in the Greater Williamsburg area and Hampton Roads will be focused on candidate stances regarding military and defense issues.

"Virginia likes a governing message," Kaine said, during a phone interview with the Gazette on Friday. "Hillary focused strongly on diplomacy and national security issues," Kaine said, referring to Clinton's tenure in the Senate. "Sen. Sanders has never chosen to focus on that."

That doesn't mean Sanders will lack support locally.

"I would expect in Williamsburg, Sanders will have a better chance of success," said John McGlennon, Chairman of the Government Department at the College of William and Mary, and a member of James City County's Board of Supervisors.

McGlennon said Sanders has strong support among young people in the area, especially college students. "Clinton should perform fairly well in James City County," McGlennon said, noting that the demographics in the county are more favorable to Clinton with an older population.

GOP race

Trump has held a fairly comfortable lead in Virginia in recent weeks for the Republican primary race. Trump leads Rubio by an average of 15 points in a rolling average of polls conducted by RealClearPolitics, according to the latest data available Friday afternoon.

"I look at that polling and voters don't seem to be putting that much of a premium on electability," Martin said.

"Voters are angry with the economy nationally and globally. Voters are angry. They are mad. They want to send a message," he said.

Since Christie dropped out of the race, Martin has remained neutral in the race. "Speaking as Tucker Martin, I don't think Donald Trump's going to win the general election," he said. He was surprised by Christie's Friday endorsement of Trump.

"The thing that fascinates me is Virginia has been watching this race at a distance. We've been watching it on national TV. Nobody has really been advertising here. The candidate stops have been very far and few in between. We're participating in a very national election as opposed to a Virginia election," Martin said.

He said with more time to campaign in the state a candidate like Rubio might receive a more receptive audience with Virginia voters.

Col. Larry Wilkerson, a professor at William and Mary, said Virginia Republican voters concerned with issues of national security might also look to candidates other than Trump. "I think it's fair to say Jeb Bush would have probably been the leading candidate for that group," said Wilkerson, who identifies as a Republican.

Wilkerson served as chief of staff to retired Gen. Colin Powell during his tenure as Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has advised a variety of politicians across the aisle on national security issues, most recently Bernie Sanders.

But Wilkerson said he had not offered endorsement to any candidate during this race, and said he was still undecided in the upcoming race.

"As a Republican, the only one who makes sense to me, partly because I know him, is John Kasich," Wilkerson said. "He's the only one who looks like the Republicans I treasure and remember."

Skelley said candidates like Rubio and Kasich will likely perform better in the Historic Triangle area than Trump, who he said typically performs better with less educated voters.

The Williamsburg-James City County, York County area has one of the highest college graduate rates in the state, with between 52 percent and 65 percent of the population with at least an associate's degree, according to data provided by Skelley.

Local endorsements

Locally, elected officials have largely stayed out of the fray in the presidential race in terms of lending support.

One member of greater Williamsburg's legislative delegations was out of the blocks early in endorsing a candidate in the upcoming presidential primaries.

Del. Brenda Pogge, R-James City, was onboard with Texas Senator Ted Cruz in the summer, among the first group of Virginia endorsers that Cruz's campaign announced.

The area's biggest political "catch" remains unaffiliated. Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, is — along with House Speaker William Howell, R-Stafford, the highest ranked Republican elected official in Virginia state government. But neither have endorsed anyone in Tuesday's primary.

According to Norment's aide Jeff Ryer, the senator did not attend a recent Richmond gathering of party leaders to back Kasich.

On the Democratic side Del. Monty Mason, D-Wlliamsburg, hasn't endorsed anyone in the Democratic contest.

Gazette Staff Writer Steve Vaughan contributed to this report. Bogues can be reached by phone at 757-345-2346.

Primary Day: Tuesday, March 1

What you need to know:

Who can vote? Any registered voter

Where do I vote? At the polling place on your voter registration card, between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Will I need identification? Yes. Virginia state law requires voters to show a photo ID. Among the acceptable forms are a driver's license or Virginia ID card, a DMV-issued veteran's ID card, a passport, other government-issued ID cards, either state or federal. For a full list, go to elections.gov.virginiahttp://elections.virginia.gov/casting-a-ballot/in-person-voting/index.html.

What am I voting on? Either who you want as the Democratic candidate for president or who you want as the Republican candidate.

Do I have to be registered as a Democrat or Republican? No, the election officer will ask you which ballot you want.

What's at stake? 110 of the 4,763 delegates to the Democratic convention that will pick the party's nominee; 49 of the 2,472 delegates to the Republican convention that picks that party's nominee.

Who else votes on Tuesday? Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont have primaries. Colorado and Minnesota hold caucuses for both parties. Republicans in Alaska and Wyoming hold caucuses

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