The 2008 presidential nominees could be set before Virginians cast their primary votes in February, but that hasn’t stopped the state’s top elected leaders from issuing a flurry of endorsements.
House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford County Republican, said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee “embodies the values and aspirations” of Virginians. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney “is the right man for the job,” and former Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, a Republican, said former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has the credentials to lead the country.
Meanwhile, C. Richard Cranwell, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, backs former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has endorsed Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat.
“It’s a wide open field and everybody wants to get involved in the game,” said J. Tucker Martin, spokesman for Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell.
Mr. McDonnell, who is running for governor in 2009, has not made an endorsement, “but the attorney general thinks very highly of [former Tennessee Sen.] Fred Thompson.”
Virginia‘s primary is Feb. 12. Many states will hold their primaries Feb. 5. So, why are Virginia’s top political figures endorsing presidential candidates when Virginia has a later primary and as a result could diminish its importance in selecting party nominees?
“I think there is some mutual benefit that adheres to these endorsements,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Brian J. Moran, an undecided Alexandria voter. “That is certainly the case when you endorse someone with a philosophical allegiance.”
Endorsements garner press coverage, can help strengthen political appeal and open the possibility of the favor being returned in the form of future public and financial support.
“If you’ve backed a winner that can be very helpful or if you backed a loser and they have a lot of money and they can back you that is also helpful,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.
Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, Bath County Democrat, said an endorsement is “a chance for a politician to set himself apart from others and be looked upon as a leader. It’s a little bit risky.”
Local conservative blogger Greg Letiecq surmised that Mr. Bolling’s decision to back Mr. Romney was “to get in early” with “someone he’s probably convinced in going to be a winner.”
Mr. Bolling, who is eyeing a bid for governor in 2009, said Mr. Romney’s successful record of working across party lines in a Democrat-controlled legislature “speaks volumes about how Mitt Romney can reach out to independent voters and even clear-thinking Democrats.”
For Mr. Romney, the support of a Southern Baptist like Mr. Bolling helps him broaden his appeal with Southern conservatives concerned about his Mormon background.
In supporting Mr. Huckabee, Mr. Howell “definitely seems to be acting out of conviction,” Mr. Letiecq said.
“An endorsement like this isn’t going to enable Speaker Howell to envision dreams of an important White House appointment as Huckabee still is significantly an outsider in the presidential sweepstakes, but to me that’s the point here,” he wrote.
A smart move for Mr. Howell, Mr. Farnsworth said.
“The evangelical Christian vote is not a small element of the Republican Party in Virginia,” he said. “So supporting a candidate [like Mr. Huckabee] who has been well received by Christian conservatives so far is smart politically and consistent with Howell’s political base.”
While it may not have great influence in the presidential primary, Virginia is expected to play a larger role in the general election. The last time Virginia backed a Democrat for president was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Mr. Kaine’s win — sandwiched between former Gov. Mark Warner’s 2001 victory and Sen. James H. Webb Jr.’s triumph last year — has Virginia Democrats optimistic.
“Virginia is going to be competitive in presidential politics in 2008 in a way that we haven’t been in for 40 years,” Mr. Kaine said during his endorsement of Mr. Obama.