(CNSNews.com) - A poll conducted this week gives George W Bush an 11-point lead over John McCain in advance of what is supposed to be Virginia's Republican primary - but how Republican will that primary actually be?
Virginia does not require voters to register by party affiliation. That means any registered voter may cast a ballot in Tuesday's primary. But to receive a ballot, all voters must sign a pledge promising not to take part in another party's presidential nominating process. However, there is no provision in state law to enforce the pledge, and there is no penalty for violating it.
The McCain campaign says the heck with the oath. "We're telling people it is an attempt by the Republican Party to limit voting, and we also tell them they can sign that doggone thing with no qualms whatever," Paul Galanti, McCain's Virginia campaign director, is quoted as saying. "It has no bearing on anyone unless you're a delegate to the state or national Democratic convention," he added.
With exit polls showing that John McCain owes his Michigan primary victory to a strong turnout by Democrats and Independents, his campaign is recommending that those same groups turn out in Virginia - a state where George Bush was thought to have the advantage.
Leaving nothing to chance, Bush will make three campaign stops in Virginia on Friday. McCain, who has been campaigning on the West Coast most of this week, was planning a trip Monday morning to Virginia Beach.
Bush's Virginia campaign director insists the state's February 29 primary is a Republican primary. "The nominee of the Republican Party should be decided by people who have a stake in the party and will be willing to fight for their nominee against Al Gore in November," said Quintin Kendall. "For the sake of political expediency, John McCain is doing whatever it takes to win," Kendall added.
All Republican statewide officeholders have endorsed Bush. "Virginians deserve a candidate who brings people together rather than divides them," said Virginia's Republican Governor James Gilmore. "Governor Bush and I have worked to appeal to voters across the social and religious spectrum."
Press reports note that outsiders have meddled in Virginia's Republican primaries before.
In 1996, Independents and Democrats crossed party lines to vote in Virginia's Republican primary. They did so to prevent conservatives from punishing Senator John Warner (R-VA), who had refused to support Republican Senate candidate Oliver North two years earlier.
By voting in the GOP primary, the "outsiders" gave Warner the edge he needed to defeat the conservatives' candidate, James C. Miller, the former budget director in the Reagan administration.
There are 56 delegates at stake in Tuesday's winner-takes-all Virginia primary, the second largest total to date.
A statewide poll of 621 likely Virginia voters conducted Tuesday and Wednesday by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research showed Bush leading McCain 48-37 percent - an 11-point lead for Bush. However, McCain supporters note that their man was a full 20 points behind Bush in Virginia after the New Hampshire primary, so the gap has narrowed somewhat.
In that Mason-Dixon poll, 12 percent of likely voters said they were undecided. Three percent said they'd vote for Republican Alan Keyes. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points.
Breaking the poll down further, McCain leads by 7 points in Northern Virginia - the Washington, D.C. surburbs - despite the fact that he has angered some people with his past votes to expand air traffic at Reagan National Airport. McCain also has angered some Virginia Republicans by supporting higher federal taxes on tobacco.
The poll shows Bush and McCain tied in Hampton Roads, which has a large population of military personnel.