Virginia will be a test case Tuesday for just how dissatisfied conservatives are with Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney even if its role in the Super Tuesday contests is more minor than the swing state would like to play.
Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas are the only candidates on the primary ballot as Virginia voters head to the polls, the result of strict ballot-access requirements and a drawn-out but ultimately unsuccessful legal saga that left the rest of the presidential field on the outside looking in. Still, voters are unhappy about the having only two of the four remaining candidates from which to choose.
"People don't like having Ron Paul or Mitt Romney as the only choices on the ballot," said John Jaggers, director of operations for the Northern Virginia Tea Party. "For conservative activists, clearly Romney is the issue. He's not a conservative politician by any measure. He's just not."
Former Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, both Virginia residents running as conservative alternatives to Romney, failed to collect the 10,000 signatures needed to make the state's ballot.
Jaggers said many Tea Party members will vote for Paul or not vote at all rather than lend support to Romney. Another Republican Party official told The Washington Examiner some voters intend to turn in blank ballots to protest the absence of Santorum and Gingrich.
Local election officials expect some voters to be upset that their preferred candidate is not on the ballot, but will make sure those voters know write-in votes are not allowed, said Fairfax County Registrar Cameron Quinn.
Voter turn out in Virginia is expected to be low, early balloting suggests. Fairfax County Republicans requested just 1,500 absentee ballots this year after turning in more than 2,200 in 2008. Gov. Bob McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, both Romney backers, on Monday implored Republicans to show up at the polls.
"Just because there are only two candidates on the ballot, doesn't lessen the importance of this primary," said Bolling, Romney's Virginia campaign chairman.
Still, Romney is expected to win most -- if not all -- of Virginia's 49 delegates, said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. A NBC News/Marist poll released Sunday showed 69 percent of voters pulling for Romney and 26 percent for Paul.
Virginia could have been one of the top prizes Tuesday, along with Ohio, as the Republican candidates look to establish themselves in swing states that will be heavily contested in the fall election against President Obama. After going for Obama in 2008 and shifting to Republicans in every election since, Virginia still is expected to be a major player in the general election even if it's been relegated to second tier in the primary.
"If there's a memory of this campaign," Kondik said, "Virginia is a footnote."