Huckabee Supporters Have High Hopes for Virginia

Arizona Sen. John McCain continues to hold a commanding lead in the Republican delegate count. Since Super Tuesday, pundits and party leaders have considered him the "presumptive nominee."

But former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee continues to do well in rural states and in the South, winning Saturday's nominating contests in Kansas and Louisiana.

Now the Republican presidential candidates are campaigning in Virginia — in advance of the Virginia, Maryland and District of Columbia primaries Feb. 12.

Voters such as Carrie Wigal are not ready to concede the race to McCain. In the Appalachian foothills town of Palmyra, Va., Wigal and about a dozen other people stood on a street corner waving signs for Huckabee.

"Huckabee has issues that are a very stark contrast to McCain, with securing our borders and family, pro-life. I mean, out here in the rural part of the state, there's a lot of Virginians that are still very conservative," Wigal said.

Conservative voters have helped Huckabee win five primaries so far in Southern states, as well as a caucus in neighboring West Virginia, but repeating that success may be hard. While some of Virginia feels like the rural South, many of its Republicans are suburbanites near Washington, D.C., or military families near the huge naval base in Norfolk — voters who polls suggest prefer McCain.

"Huckabee did really well in West Virginia this past week, and some of that support will hop over the mountain and be seen in the western part of Virginia. But John McCain is well-placed to draw on the strength of moderate voters in the north and military voters in the East," says Paul Freedman, a University of Virginia political scientist.

Two recent polls show McCain with a roughly 30-point lead on Huckabee in Virginia, with Ron Paul, the other remaining Republican, coming in a distant third. Chris Saxman, co-chairman of McCain's Virginia campaign, predicts that Tuesday's primary will erase any lingering doubt about McCain's front-runner status.

"I think in some of the more rural locations, Mike Huckabee is going to do well. But John McCain is picking up a lot of support all throughout the state, and I think there's a matter of inevitability to his candidacy, to his nomination. I think it's going to show up tomorrow," Saxman says.

McCain was also endorsed by two prominent Virginia Republicans, Attorney General Bob McDonnell and former Sen. George Allen, who both had been backing Fred Thompson. Saxman says rank-and-file Republicans have begun to come together as well.

At a GOP breakfast in Staunton, Bruce Grover said he is now supporting McCain. A retired National Guard officer, Grover originally preferred former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He says McCain is a good fit for Virginia, where military personnel and retirees are more than 10 percent of the population.

Other Republicans at the breakfast were less enthusiastic about the Arizona senator. Retiree Howard Hahn supported Mitt Romney until he dropped out of the race. Now, Hahn is not sure whether he can vote for McCain.

"I'm a conservative, and as far as I'm concerned, John's kind of stuck his thumb in our eyes on a few things, and there have been some other candidates who suit us a little better, so I'm yet to be decided," he says.

Hahn will not vote for Huckabee, who he says is unelectable. He may vote for Romney, whose name still will appear on the Virginia ballot: That, he says, may send a signal that some Virginia conservatives are disillusioned with their remaining choices.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.