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Yes, Virginia, there is a primary - just barely

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney waves with his wife Ann as they leave a campaign rally at Th
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney waves with his wife Ann as they leave a campaign rally at Th

By Patricia Zengerle

ARLINGTON, Virginia (Reuters) - Here are three safe bets on Virginia's presidential primary on Tuesday: Mitt Romney will win, turnout will be low and a lot of Republicans will be discouraged, which could help President Barack Obama in the battleground state in November.

Virginia is one of the crucially important "swing" states where the November 6 presidential election will be decided, but it is a non-factor among the 10 states holding primaries or caucuses on "Super Tuesday" next week.

Only two of the top four Republican contenders are on the ballot - Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and Texas Representative Ron Paul - after the others failed to follow Virginia's qualifying rules, the toughest in the country.

A furor over the ballot is draining enthusiasm for the party in a way that could hurt the Republicans in the general election, by keeping Republican activists from volunteering or even turning out to vote.

"It is being referred to as our 'Stalinist' election," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Many on the Republican right see Romney as too moderate and want to vote for former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich, who are running second and third in national polls among Republicans. Surveys in Virginia show Romney defeating Paul next week by 30 percentage points or more and taking all 49 of the state's delegates.

"There definitely is frustration and more so disappointment," said Jordan Wilson, a student at Liberty University, a Christian university led by the son of the late conservative Christian leader Jerry Falwell.

Wilson said he was leaning toward Romney, but his heart was not fully in it.

"I'll definitely be voting, but I don't have a candidate," said Wilson, an evangelical Christian, who said he would prefer to have voted for Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Other conservatives said they would stay home on Tuesday, hand in blank ballots or cast protest votes for Paul, who is fourth in national polls of the Republican White House hopefuls. Virginia law bars write-in voting.

Nearly six in 10 of the state's Republicans and independents are not satisfied with the primary ballot and nearly a third said they were unlikely to vote, according to a poll last week by Christopher Newport University.

"A lot of people are very upset and very discouraged," said lawyer Jonathan Moseley, a Tea Party activist and Gingrich supporter from Fairfax, Virginia, who was involved in a lawsuit trying to get more candidates on the ballot.

In 2008, Obama became the first Democrat to carry Virginia in 44 years. Opinion surveys this time show he would face a close fight against either Romney or Santorum, so voter anger could be crucial if it lingers.

That anger could also influence the high-profile U.S. Senate race between two former Virginia governors, Democrat Tim Kaine, an Obama confidant, and Republican George Allen, who lost the Senate seat in 2006. Their race is also expected to be close.

"If Romney is the ultimate nominee of the Republican Party, there is a strong case that Virginia voters who were not given a full slate of candidates will continue to feel disenfranchised and angry," said Jennifer Thompson, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

CULTURE WARS IN RICHMOND

State politics are also being roiled by bitter disputes in the capital, Richmond, between Democrats and Republican Governor Bob McDonnell and his party's legislators, who have been pursuing a strongly social conservative agenda since winning a majority in the state Senate in November.

McDonnell and his party became the subject of national attention for trying to pass a restrictive anti-abortion bill that would have forced women to have invasive "vaginal probe" ultrasounds before the procedure.

The bill was eventually rewritten, to require ultrasounds, but not the probes.

Republicans say they are confident that the economy, not cultural conservatism, will be the central issue in the presidential election and that Virginia Republicans, united in their desire to defeat Obama and energized by a strongly conservative agenda, will forget the controversy and pull together in November.

"The social conservative wing of the party is very strong in the state," said political scientist Mark Rozell at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

But Democrats have been using the controversy to appeal to independents to stop what they term an extreme social agenda. Polls show the issue is pulling some voters, particularly women and those under 30, toward the Democrats.

Romney is backed by Virginia's Republican establishment. McDonnell has endorsed him and is seen as a leading candidate for the Republican 2012 vice presidential nomination. Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling is chairman of Romney's state campaign.

That adds to the anger of many activists, particularly from the conservative Tea Party movement.

"The Republican Party literally keeps jamming Romney down our throats," said one northern Virginia activist, who asked not to be quoted by name so she could speak freely.

Santorum and Gingrich, who both have homes in the state, tripped up badly by failing to obtain enough certified signatures to participate in the primary.

Gingrich had hoped to make the state part of a strategy on Super Tuesday of focusing on Southern states in the hopes that his roots in Georgia would help win him votes and launch him back into contention in the nomination race.

Santorum, who is most strongly identified with religious conservative views, would have been boosted by the many social conservatives in the state where Pat Robertson founded his Christian Coalition and Falwell founded the Moral Majority movement.

(Editing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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