WASHINGTON -- With John McCain's harsh attack on the religious right still fresh in their minds, Virginia Republicans awarded George W. Bush a lopsided victory yesterday over his chief rival and put Bush's presidential campaign back on the winning track.
The Texas governor's success in Virginia handed him a bounty of 56 delegates to the Republican nominating convention and restored some luster to his White House bid as the candidates head into the all-important "Super Tuesday" next week. On that day, 13 states, including California, New York and Maryland, will hold Republican contests.
In a Democratic contest yesterday, Vice President Al Gore easily defeated former Sen. Bill Bradley in a "beauty contest" primary in Washington state that yielded no delegates but dealt a sharp setback to Bradley, who had campaigned intensely in the state and has yet to win a primary.
Bush also collected 19 delegates last night in the Republican caucuses in North Dakota, and was vying with McCain for the 12 delegates that will go to the winner of yesterday's primary in Washington state.
"We are uniting our party without compromising principle," Bush told supporters at a rally last night in Cincinnati. "This campaign is winning, and we're doing it the right way. We are expanding our base without destroying our foundations."
McCain's reformist message did attract Democrats and independent voters to Virginia's open Republican primary, particularly in the Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia, where officials reported an unusually high turnout.
But unlike in earlier contests in Michigan and New Hampshire, crossover voters in Virginia were too few to offset Bush's sizable support among core Republican voters. Exit polls indicated that some of these Republicans were energized by McCain's denunciations Monday of two leaders of the Christian right, Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
"The voters of Virginia have rejected pitting one religion against another," Bush declared.
McCain, now campaigning intensely in delegate-rich California, called Bush from his campaign bus to congratulate him on the Virginia win. But he downplayed its significance.
"It seems as if he has a Southern strategy here -- doing well in Southern states," McCain said of Bush, whose first major primary victory was in South Carolina.
Super Tuesday ahead
The far more important competition will come next week, the Arizona senator said, when states across the country will pick more than 600 delegates.
"We'll look forward to Super Tuesday, when we have a broad cross-section of America voting all on that same day," he said.
Despite the signs of a Virginia backlash from his decision to take on Robertson and Falwell, McCain insisted that he had no regrets.
"We were way behind" there all along, he said, explaining that he figured he had little to lose in the winner-take-all primary but had an opportunity to make a point that might be better received in future primaries.
"We were talking nationally," he said, "not to Virginia."
Before yesterday's contests, McCain was slightly ahead of Bush in delegates: 96 to 93, with a total of 1,034 needed to secure the nomination.
A tighter race was foreseen yesterday in the open primary in Washington state, where McCain's populist appeal to independent-minded voters holds more appeal. A victory there, though, would yield only 12 delegates and a bit of propulsion for the senator as the presidential campaign moves into California, the primary season's richest delegate prize.
Alan L. Keyes, the other candidate remaining in the GOP race, finished a distant third in Virginia and fared little better in North Dakota.
Gore and Bradley were intensely focused yesterday on California, where they are scheduled to debate tonight in what is seen as perhaps Bradley's last chance to grab a foothold in a nomination race in which Gore appears dominant.
McCain's religion gambit
Bush's success in Virginia comes a day after McCain lobbed a rhetorical grenade into the heart of the Christian right movement, which was already gearing up to mobilize voters for Bush.
In his final appearance in the state, McCain went to Virginia Beach, home of the Christian Coalition, and accused Robertson, the organization's leader, of "political intolerance." McCain also attacked Falwell, founder of the Virginia-based Moral Majority, as one of the "agents of intolerance."
The senator went on to call Bush, who gained crucial support from religious conservatives -- particularly from Robertson -- in his South Carolina victory, a "Pat Robertson Republican."
McCain's gambit, likened by admirers to President Clinton's 1992 attack on rapper Sister Souljah for fostering hatred on the left, was intended for a moderate audience beyond Virginia -- particularly in California and New York, which also offers a rich trove of delegates next week.