What's at Stake in the Potomac Primaries? Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are battling it out, state by state, delegate by delegate, on the road to the Democratic presidential nomination. Next up: the so-called "Potomac primaries" in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia on Tuesday.
NPR logo What's at Stake in the Potomac Primaries?

What's at Stake in the Potomac Primaries?

Republican 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 hide caption

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Gary Knapp/Getty Images

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton takes the stage for a campaign rally Thursday at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va. Emannuel Dunand/AFP/Photo hide caption

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Emannuel Dunand/AFP/Photo

Democratic presidential candidate Illinois Sen. Barack Obama leaves a plane Wednesday after landing at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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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.