Super Tuesday: Virginia GOP primary today

(Photo: Brianne Carter)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - With high-energy Super Tuesday primaries elsewhere, Virginia Republicans turned out in paltry numbers for a primary ballot with only two names, a victim of the state's rigorous candidate qualifying laws.

Old Dominion Republicans can choose only between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, whose libertarian streak has earned him a dedicated but small following.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich both failed to make Virginia's ballot.

Across the state, turnouts were minimal. At a precinct less than two miles from Gingrich's McLean home, the election went largely unnoticed.

Only 30 of the precinct's more than 3,000 voters had cast ballots by 10 a.m.

A few miles away in Falls Church, voter Darren Ewing was frustrated that Virginia's election laws did not allow him to write in Gingrich's name, so he reluctantly voted for Paul.

Gingrich "may not be the most polished candidate, but he's a candidate with a vision" and a track record of implementing significant changes, said Ewing, 41, a financial adviser.

At Gov. Bob McDonnell's polling place in heavily Democratic downtown Richmond, he and his wife, Maureen, were voters No. 7 and 8 when they cast ballots at 9:30 a.m.

McDonnell, who has been considered a possible vice presidential prospect should Romney win the nomination, had announced plans to vote at 11:15 a.m. But he abruptly moved it up Tuesday morning to avoid abortion-rights protesters outside the voting precinct.

After voting, McDonnell lamented the lack of a competitive Virginia primary, where statewide candidates must gather 10,000 valid registered voters' signatures, including at least 400 from each congressional district.

"As I've said many times, if you're going to be president of the United States, you ought to be able to get 10,000 signatures in Virginia," he said.

Santorum and Gingrich failed in December to submit the qualifying petitions necessary to qualify for the ballot, as did now-withdrawn candidates Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former Utah Gov. John Huntsman.

Perry sued in federal court to force his name onto the ballot, challenging a Virginia law that requires those who circulate qualifying petitions be Virginia residents. Others joined Perry's lawsuit, and a court ruled that while the law is likely unconstitutional, the plaintiffs challenged it too late.

In a strongly GOP Chesterfield County precinct, Larry Chalkley, a retired 71-year-old machinist whose abortion rights leanings conflict with the prevailing GOP ideology, voted for Romney.

"I'm a Republican, but I think a woman ought to have the right to choose for her own body," he said. "I've got two daughters, two granddaughters, and I don't think that the government ought to have any say whatsoever in anything that they do with their body."

A vigorous GOP primary in 2000 helped put then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush ahead for good, as did a massive Democratic primary turnout in 2008 for Barack Obama, then an Illinois senator.

Both carried Virginia convincingly in the general elections of those years, Obama's victory being the first for a Democrat in a presidential race since 1964.

Virginia looms as a must-win state for both parties this fall. Obama has already made several trips into the state, and returns on Friday for a speech in Prince George County, about 25 miles southeast of Richmond.

Momentum Tuesday appeared to be on the side of Romney, who could pick up all of the 46 delegates available if he can win all 11 of the state's congressional districts.

He also has the state's GOP establishment behind him, including U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and McDonnell.