High Turnout Expected in D.C.-Area Primaries

Voters are participating Tuesday in primary elections in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia — they're being called the "Potomac Primaries." Better-than-average turnout is expected in Virginia and Maryland, with waits of up to 45 minutes in some areas.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

D: 83 delegates to the Democratic convention and 60 delegates to the Republican convention.

NPR's Audie Cornish is in Richmond, where people have been lining up at polling stations in 6 am. Hello, Audie?

AUDIE CORNISH: Hi, Michele.

NORRIS: We've been seeing record turnouts in events around the country this past month, Audie. What are the crowds like there in Virginia?

CORNISH: Well, Virginia is certainly having a very solid turnout. Up in the northern part, in Fairfax County, the election sheets there reported waits about to 45 minutes.

Overall, state elections officials had been hoping that turnout would reach well over 30 percent. This is a state where, you know, last week, thousands of people were calling on Super Tuesday, trying to get to the polls, not understanding that their turn was not up yet. So there's been high anticipation.

And of the people who are turning out to the polls, there have been reports that a great many of those, perhaps the majority of them are asking for a Democratic ballot.

In Virginia, you can choose to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary. And right now, there were a lot of people asking for Democrat ballots.

NORRIS: Is there a predominant mood among the voters in Richmond?

CORNISH: Well, judging from the polling stations I was at, if you talk to Democrats, there was a feeling maybe best described as a sort of giddy indecision, that they were pleased with both of their options, but that no matter how far along we are in this primary season, they are still very much sort of undecided. And I had more than one person say to me that they had not made up their mind until they were in the booth.

With the Republicans I spoke to, there was much more of a sense of resignation, and I think that with that race moving along the way it has, there is much less of, I guess, excitement on that side of things for Virginia voters.

NORRIS: So you had a chance to talk to voters about the candidates. What about some of the issues? What were most important to voters?

CORNISH: I had several voters talking to me about the economy and specifically the mortgage crisis. Also, there were a number of people who brought up the war in Iraq and national security. These are two issues that I've seen in states over and over again. And they haven't gone away here in Virginia.

And it seems as though they played a primary role in the decision making of the folks that I talked to.

NORRIS: Now, through all these early contests, we've heard a lot about the differences between caucuses and primaries. You've actually seen both in action. Is there a difference in the kind of people who show up for this kind of event, for a primary as opposed to a caucus?

CORNISH: Well, the fact is with a primary, you can vote on your lunch hour, you can vote any time. You can get away between, say, in Virginia's case, 6 and 7. And it's something that is really between you and whatever you were thinking at that moment. Whereas with the caucus, you're really dealing with folks who have the time, energy, wherewithal, babysitters, ability to get out to their specific location and then stay there for upwards of two hours to have a conversation with people they essentially don't know about what candidate they like and what candidate they believe should be elected. And there's also a little bit of wheeling and dealing aspect of it.

It's not just about organization, but about energy and about enthusiasm.

NORRIS: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: Thank you.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Audie Cornish, reporting from Richmond, Virginia.

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What's at Stake in the Potomac Primaries?

Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Virginia Sen. John Warner

hide captionRepublican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain of Arizona (right) and Virginia Sen. John Warner on Friday at the National Security Roundtable discussion in Norfolk, Va.

Gary Knapp/Getty Images
Hillary Clinton takes the stage for a campaign rally at Washington Lee High School.

hide captionNew York Sen. Hillary Clinton takes the stage for a campaign rally Thursday at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va.

Emannuel Dunand/AFP/Photo
Barack Obama leaves a plane after landing at Dulles Airport in Virginia.

hide captionDemocratic presidential candidate Illinois Sen. Barack Obama leaves a plane Wednesday after landing at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Did You Know?

  • The Virginia primary is open, meaning registered voters can participate in either party's contest.
  • The Virginia State Board of Elections received 3,000 phone calls on Super Tuesday from confused voters who thought the state's primary was on Feb. 5, when 24 other states held voting contests. In fact, the Virginia primary takes place a week later, on Feb. 12.
  • Jesse Jackson won the Virginia primary in 1988.

The Republican presidential nomination seemed to belong to Arizona Sen. John McCain, after his chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, dropped out of the race. But the race's underdog, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, has gained strength as he receives support from conservative Republicans and evangelicals. Although he is far behind McCain in the number of delegates needed to secure the nomination, Huckabee won early voting victories in the Kansas caucuses and Louisiana primary.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Barack Obama scored major victories over the weekend by winning all of the contests, including the Louisiana primary and caucuses in Maine, Washington and Nebraska. The demographics of Maine were supposed to favor Clinton, since white, poor voters have supported her. Instead, Obama won the state with 59 percent to Clinton's 40 percent — although he has done much better in caucuses.

Clinton also shook up her staff Sunday, replacing her longtime campaign manager with another aide.

A Mason-Dixon poll released Sunday showed Obama leading Clinton 53 percent to 37 percent, and McCain beating Huckabee 55 percent to 27 percent in the so-called "Potomac primaries." The poll was conducted on Feb. 7 and 8.

Both Huckabee and Obama's recent victories make the Potomac primaries even more significant for both parties. Here, an overview of what's at stake on Feb. 12, when Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., hold presidential nominating contests:

The Democrats

Candidates: New York Sen. Hillary Clinton; Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

What's at Stake: In a word, delegates. When Super Tuesday's voting contests essentially ended in a draw, both Clinton and Obama refocused their campaigns on the states that followed — and the opportunities these contests offered to pick up delegates. The name of the game is now reaching the magic number of 2,025 delegates. On Tuesday, Virginia will offer the greatest number (83), followed by Maryland (70) and Washington, D.C. (15).

Both sides concede that Obama is likely to win Maryland and D.C., given the large percentage of African-Americans in both locales. The nation's capital has the largest concentration of blacks in the country, with close to 55 percent. Maryland has the fifth largest, with 28.9 percent.

A more competitive battle is likely to take place in Virginia. About one-fifth of Virginia's Democratic primary voters are African American, and the Northern Virginia suburbs include large numbers of high-income and highly educated voters. The state has no registration by party, so any voter can choose to vote in either primary. And with the more or less disappearance of a true Republican contest, many independents and Republicans might decide to vote in the Democratic primary, and thus, vote for Obama. Independents have preferred Obama over Clinton in this year's Democratic primaries and caucuses.

In addition, Obama has received the endorsement of key local politicians, notably Gov. Tim Kaine and Rep. Robert Scott, the state's only black congressman. But as we've seen throughout the election season, the value of endorsements is limited.

Recently, the Clinton campaign has made a play for Virginia's working-class voters and whites — groups who have tended to support her in recent voting.

The Republicans

Candidates: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Arizona Sen. John McCain; Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

What's at Stake: Although McCain has effectively been anointed the de facto Republican nominee, the Arizona senator still has a struggle to win over many conservatives in his party. That is especially true regarding his position on illegal immigration, which many on the right see as "amnesty." When McCain mentioned the word immigration at a recent meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., attendees booed him.

Huckabee, who has shown no indication of pulling out of the race any time soon, has been very popular with Southern Republican voters and evangelicals. (On Super Tuesday, Huckabee carried Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia and Arkansas. The following Saturday, he won the Louisiana primary and the caucuses in Kansas.) Huckabee could benefit from any Republican opposition to McCain in Tuesday's primary.

Issues: As it has been throughout the primary season, the economy is a top issue here. The Iraq war, health care, terrorism and immigration also consistently have been important.

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