DULLES, Va. -- Partway through a cheerful day of campaigning last week in a state where he seems to have nearly everything going for him, George W. Bush dropped the mask of confidence briefly when asked by a voter whether he expects to win big tomorrow in Virginia's Republican presidential primary.
"Win big?" exclaimed the once presumptive nominee who has been twice burned by defeat, in New Hampshire and Michigan. "I'm looking for a one-vote victory these days."
Gauging by traditional political standards, Virginia would be expected to give the Texas governor a much heftier boost than that in his nomination duel with Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Nearly the entire Republican establishment, fresh from its takeover of the state legislature last year, is cranked up to deliver the GOP vote to Bush. The conservative, courtly culture of the Old Dominion seems less hospitable to McCain's insurgent bid than New Hampshire or Michigan. Some regional issues, such as McCain's attempts to raise the cigarette tax, break Bush's way in the birthplace of America's tobacco industry.
Plus, Virginians have repeatedly demonstrated affection for Bush's father, the former president, who stumped for his son in Norfolk and Roanoke last week.
"This has always been Bush country," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr., a Virginia Democrat, who predicted a lopsided victory for the Texas governor.
And yet, as the candidates prepare for Super Tuesday contests in 12 states March 7, Bush can't afford to take Virginia for granted.
There are wild cards in the deck, including an open Republican primary that allows any registered voter to participate; Democrats will have their party caucuses in April.
Once again -- as in Michigan and New Hampshire -- independents and Democrats, who have proved to be more captivated by McCain's message than have rank-and-file Republicans, can vote in the GOP primary to tip the balance in the senator's favor.
"We've got a movement going on that even I can't adequately describe to you exactly how it happened," McCain told a rally of more than 1,000 supporters gathered outside his national headquarters in Alexandria yesterday. "It's real. It's there. It's just changing America."
McCain planned a town hall meeting this morning in Virginia Beach, home to many of the state's military veterans, who are considered a critical part of his base.
Polls suggest that the GOP race in Virginia is narrowing. But so much of the competition is being conducted in cyberspace that political veterans have grown wary of predictions, many of which have proved inaccurate this primary season.
"Everything is very volatile because of the Internet," said Bush supporter Judy Teske, an Arlington County Republican. "There's a lot of churning."
McCain, who believes he must win at least one of the three Republican contests taking place tomorrow, has highest hopes for Washington state. Voters there frequently display the maverick streak to which McCain's upstart effort appeals. McCain and Bush have both spent more time campaigning in Washington than in Virginia, believing a victory there could help set the stage a week later for California's primary, the biggest delegate prize.
The senator plans his last appearance today in Tacoma, after a brief stop in North Dakota, which will select 19 delegates at party caucuses tomorrow. Bush was in Seattle last night and plans to spend today in Washington state.
But Virginia is tomorrow's big prize: 56 delegates in a winner-take-all race, compared with 12 in Washington. With the GOP contest becoming a numerical battle for the 1,034 delegates needed to secure the nomination, winning Virginia might be almost as important for McCain as it would be for Bush.
"Coming close in Virginia is not good enough for McCain," said Scott Keeter, a political science professor at George Mason University in Fairfax. "There are no moral victories at this point in the race."
Bush's strength in Virginia, as in other states, arises largely from money and organization.
He's been pummeling McCain for weeks with more than $1 million in television advertisements. Meanwhile, Gov. James S. Gilmore III and other top state officials have put their foot soldiers, phone banks and flier operations at Bush's service. During his tour through Virginia on Friday, Bush was squired about the state by Gilmore, Sen. John W. Warner and former Gov. George F. Allen, a U.S. Senate candidate.
"I'm suggesting and recommending and hoping that the people of Virginia will support a guy who cares about what they care about -- tax cuts, quality in education, bringing people together, reforming welfare," Gilmore said yesterday on CNN.
Gilmore has been careful to avoid the boastful predictions of victory that left egg on the face of Michigan Gov. John Engler. But Virginia GOP leaders believe the conservative nature of their state, which is home to much of the defense industry and the Christian Coalition, will give Bush the edge.
"Even the Democrats in Virginia are conservative," said Warner.