Virginia a Feather in Romney's Cap

Virginia's primary might appear to be decided, but the general election ahead will be a different story.

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RICHMOND, Va.—Although some Virginians are still clinging to the hope that Ron Paul can put the brakes on the Mitt Romney political steamroller in their state, most polls and experts predict Romney will come away with a decisive primary win here.

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With 49 delegates to dole out, Virginia is one of the biggest prizes of Super Tuesday, and a win for Romney could give him back the edge that he's lost as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have gained a little ground in recent weeks, fragmenting the GOP nomination field.

"If Romney were to win, he not only gets to complete the tally, but he gets that inevitability back again," says Karen Tramontano, CEO of Blue Star Strategies, a political consulting firm. "But [he] has to balance that inevitability with not sounding too sure of himself.

"A win in Virginia will help shore up his supporters."

And in some respects, Romney deserves it. For all the criticism of Virginia's primary rules that thwarted efforts by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to get on the ballot, observers point out that many candidates in the past have been able to get it together enough to assemble the required signatures in time to qualify.

In a news conference Monday, Gov. Bob McDonnell, who endorsed Romney in January, defended the states's policy, which requires candidates to collect 10,000 signatures total, with at least 400 from each congressional district.

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"If you can't get 10,000 good signatures in Virginia, I don't think you've got business being president of the United States," McDonnell said.

The fact Gingrich and Santorum were unable to do so is a statement about their candidacies, Tramantano says. "One of the most interesting aspects of others not being on the ballot is that it shows the lack of forethought and ground operations," she says. "Elections are about people voting, they're not about political action funding machines for message and media."

While Virginia might not be getting a lot of attention when it comes to Tuesday's primary, that will probably change in the general election, experts say.

"It would have been nice to see the candidates really compete in Virginia because it is such a central state in the general election," says Dan Hopkins, assistant professor of government at Georgetown University. Hopkins adds that Virginia, a pivotal state that helped propel Barack Obama to victory in 2008, has a history of being a swing state with a very diverse Republican demographic.

"Virginia is going to be one of the bellwether states [in the general election]," Hopkins adds. "It's going to be close, and whichever candidate it goes to, it's going to give that candidate a significant advantage. Whoever is the Republican nominee is going to need to think about winning in Virginia."

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    Twitter: @mmhandley