RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Ask a Republican who he likes in Tuesday's Virginia presidential primary and you might get this response: What primary?
Only two candidates - Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney - qualified for the Virginia primary ballot, making Virginia a Super Tuesday stepchild in 2012.
On Friday, just four days before the primary, former Virginia attorney general and 2005 GOP gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore put it this way when asked about the looming election: "What primary?" He wasn't completely joking.
"We didn't have all the top candidates qualify for the ballot this time," said Kilgore, who had endorsed Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor who has long since dropped out of the GOP presidential field.
President Barack Obama is uncontested in the Democratic contest.
It's not that Virginia won't make a difference. A Romney win could give him the 46 Republican delegates at stake Tuesday, a much bigger haul than last week's Mighigan primary. Three other at-large delegates, all Virginia members of the Republican National Committee, have yet to commit to a presidential candidate.
The absence of former Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has drained Virginia's primary of suspense and interest. Other Republicans who failed to qualify for Virginia's ballot and have since washed out of the primary were Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Virginia requires 10,000 signatures of registered voters, including 400 from each of the state's 11 congressional districts. But there's a twist: state law requires that the petitions be circulated and the signatures collected exclusively by Virginia residents.
Paul, the eccentric conservative with a powerful libertarian streak, has long had a loyal cadre of organized followers willing to crawl over broken glass for him. They met Virginia's ballot qualification requirements.
So did Romney's organized, experienced, well-heeled, and well-connected campaign. Virginia's two-term lieutenant governor and 2013 gubernatorial candidate, Bill Bolling, signed on early as Romney's campaign chairman. Gov. Bob McDonnell did not endorse Romney until January, the day after Perry folded his floundering campaign.
Virginia's exacting ballot requirements have a way of winnowing out poorly prepared candidates. Perry sued in U.S. District Court challenging Virginia's laws and seeking a court order that his name be placed on the primary ballot. Gingrich, Huntsman and Santorum joined the lawsuit.
A federal judge found that Virginia's mandate that only state residents can circulate petitions would likely be held unconstitutional, but he refused Perry's request, ruling that Perry and the others waited too late to sue.
"Virginia's rules prevent a lot of surging candidates from getting on the ballot," Kilgore said. "It's our problem in Virginia, and we need to fix it."
It's a point that generates plenty of disagreement within the Virginia GOP. One who differs with Kilgore is McDonnell.
"Candidates need to work harder and make better organizations. If you can't get 10,000 signatures in Virginia, you don't need to be commander-in-chief of the United States," the governor said in an Associated Press interview Friday.
Like Kilgore, he had no trouble getting his name on statewide ballots twice, for races for attorney general and governor. True, both men had seasoned Republican organizations familiar with the state behind them, "but Lyndon LaRouche managed to get his name on the ballot, Dennis Kucinich got his name on the ballot," McDonnell noted.
No Republican has a campaign visit scheduled. Virginia's televisions aren't crackling with the attack-ad vitriol that candidates and their independent proxies are airing in Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee and other competitive Super Tuesday states. And come Tuesday, Virginia voters will stay home in droves.
"I think it's a problem for the party, I really do," said Mike Wade, a longtime Republican activist and former 3rd Congressional District GOP chairman.
Virginia has grown accustomed to the spotlight in presidential nominations. In 2000, the state's GOP primary gave Texas Gov. George W. Bush a timely boost after a disappointing showing in South Carolina and helped him surge ahead of Arizona Sen. John McCain for good. In 2008, Virginia gave Obama, still an untested Illinois senator and prohibitive underdog, a stunning victory over primary rival Hilary Clinton, a springboard to Obama's November triumph in a state that had not backed a Democrat for president since 1964.
With both parties pointing to Virginia as a critical 2012 battleground, the Republicans could have used an exciting primary, said political blogger and retired Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist Robert D. Holsworth.
"No one is contesting this primary, and that's not good for the Republicans in Virginia. They can't energize their party and they will miss out on the large primary voter lists that you use to build your fall campaign," Holsworth said.