Mitt Romney won Virginia’s Republican presidential primary on Tuesday but with less than overwhelming support, in a race that highlighted the difficulty the former Massachusetts governor has had in consolidating support among rank-and-file GOP voters.
With almost all precincts reporting, Mr. Romney had just shy of 60 percent of the vote, in a head-to-head race against Rep. Ron Paul that tested how far Republican voters were willing to go to register a protest against Mr. Romney.
“If Romney can’t get two-thirds of the vote, that speaks volumes about how unappealing he is even to most of the people in the Republican Party,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “But on the other hand, turnout [was] low, and Ron Paul supporters are among the most devoted of all.”
The race was a two-man affair after former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum failed to qualify for the ballot.
That left Mr. Romney to face off against Mr. Paul, a congressman from Texas who averaged only about 10 percent support in the previous six primaries. But Mr. Paul quadrupled that support in Virginia on Tuesday, benefiting from those who wanted to register a protest.
“I think the media — both extremes — dis Ron Paul because he’s going to upend the status quo, and it needs to be upset,” he said.
He pointed to a flier urging voters to “vote Paul, stop Romney” that outlined Mr. Romney’s top contributors as some of the nation’s largest banks, compared with Mr. Paul’s top backers — active-duty military personnel.
Voter turnout was down dramatically in Virginia compared with the 2008 primary. Slightly more than 260,000 voters cast ballots this year, down from the nearly 490,000 who voted four years ago when Sen. John McCain of Arizona won with 50 percent of the vote.
Mr. Romney had the backing of top establishment Republicans in Virginia — U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, state campaign chairman Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, and Gov. Bob McDonnell, who predicted that the party eventually will come around.
“I don’t think, long term, that a spirited primary like this really hurts us that much,” Mr. McDonnell told a Politico forum Tuesday evening after the state was called for Mr. Romney. “I think once people clearly see that the writing’s on the wall … people in bigger numbers will begin to coalesce.”
Some voters said they reluctantly cast their ballots for Mr. Romney on the premise that he is the most electable candidate, while others eagerly embraced him.