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.
Mary Mulvaney of McLean voted for Mr. Paul but said her heart was with Mr. Santorum.
“I’m not really for Ron Paul,” she said. “I voted against Romney. I just wanted to make a statement.”
Chris Inglese, a certified public accountant from McLean, cast his ballot for Mr. Paul — and his vote was no 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.
Mark Rosenker of McLean, a Romney supporter, said “it was the easiest ballot I’ve ever seen.”
“I’m a believer in this man,” said Mr. Rosenker, an official in the administration of George W. Bush. “I just think he’s somebody who can actually lead this nation out of the problems we have today.”
Patricia Martin cast her ballot for Mr. Romney at the Greenspring Retirement Community in Springfield. But when asked whether anything about him appealed to her besides his perceived electability, Ms. Martin had to stop and think.
“No,” she said. “I really don’t know much about the others.”
But Tuesday’s results are not exactly cause to start popping champagne, Mr. Farnsworth said.
“There’s nothing unexpected about Romney winning … when there are only two people on the ballot, and the other one is Ron Paul,” he said. “It’s like the Nationals beating the Georgetown University baseball team.”
Virginia is likely to be a major battleground in November as well.
A recent NBC/Marist poll showed President Obama with a 52 percent to 35 percent lead over Mr. Romney among registered voters in a hypothetical matchup in the state. Most polls have shown Mr. Obama with a more modest lead; Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents made up 50 percent of the poll’s sample, compared with 35 percent for Republicans and Republican leaners.
Mr. Obama, who has made several recent trips to the commonwealth, is scheduled to make a Friday stop in Prince George County, about 25 miles southeast of Richmond, to talk about the economy.
At stake Tuesday were 46 of the state’s 49 delegates. Three are awarded to the winner of each of the state’s 11 congressional districts, with 13 at-large delegates going to the statewide winner. The unofficial results had Mr. Paul winning the 3rd Congressional District, which is represented by Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Democrat, in southeastern Virginia, preventing Mr. Romney from sweeping the state completely. Three delegates are unbound by Tuesday’s results.