Presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan rallied hundreds of supporters Saturday to claim victory in a straw poll of Virginia Republicans that he hopes will give him momentum even as rivals dismiss it as meaningless.
In one of the largest rump voting sessions to date in the nascent battle for 1996 Republican presidential nomination, Buchanan, the conservative columnist and political commentator, swamped the field by winning 59 percent of the 1,083 votes cast at a fund-raiser party conference in Tysons Corner.
Each Republican who voted paid $25 for the privilege.
Such contests rarely predict the general public’s presidential preferences, but they can be big morale boosters to trailing campaigns and provide a barometer of the sentiment among party activists. The straw poll results also drive home the fact that conservatives are in firm control of the state Republican apparatus.
Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, a moderate who is the front-runner in national polls, collected just 7 percent of the vote. More moderate figures, such as California Gov. Pete Wilson and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., received less than 1 percent each and were hissed when they were mentioned.
David Johnson, executive director of the state party, said the vote on one level reflects support for Buchanan but more importantly signals the direction favored by the party faithful.”They want the party to stick to the issues that the grass roots are concerned about,” he said, such as abortion and morality. “They want the nominee, whoever it turns out to be, to be both a fiscal conservative and a social conservative. … It’s a vote for the message.”
Still, despite the relatively large turnout, the event reinforced Virginia’s nearly nonexistent role in presidential politics. Although once known as the “mother of presidents” because eight chief executives hailed from the state, Virginia in the modern era has been reduced to a small player.
Of the nine candidates, only Buchanan, radio talk-show host Alan Keyes and Rep. Robert K. Dornan (Calif.) showed up to address the group, while the rest concentrated on more strategic states, such as New Hampshire, Iowa and Florida.