'Mini-Tuesday' Is a Warmup for the Big Event

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Pity North Dakota — bet you didn't even know they were holding their Republican primary tomorrow. Don't worry, you're not alone. Apparently, the candidates didn't realize anyone was voting there either, which is why there have been no photo-ops on the frozen plains outside Fargo. Of course, it may make North Dakotans feel better to know that Tuesday's GOP primaries in Virginia and Washington State have been relegated to the B-list as well, as the bulk of the political attention remains locked on next week's 11-state Super Tuesday showdown.

Second-tier though Tuesday's contests may be, their outcome — and information provided by the ever-present exit polls — will be useful to the campaigns. Bush is widely expected to trump McCain in Virginia by a fairly wide margin, thanks in large part to the conservative southern regions of the state. And while Virginia's 56 delegates would be a practical boon to the Bush campaign, the symbolic value of winning the state might be even more significant — and by the same token, a loss could be psychologically ruinous. "There's a real Republican organization backing Bush in Virginia," says TIME political correspondent John Dickerson. "All that support depends largely on his being able to win Tuesday. If he does win, he'll be able to talk about his campaign with far more confidence." Bush can rest easy Monday night; by most accounts, McCain won't present much of a challenge, though McCain went on the offensive in Virginia on Monday, denouncing religious conservatives who call into question his conservative pedigree. The senator's vigorous anti-tobacco rhetoric has set more than a few Virginia hearts firmly against his candidacy. "This is a bad state for McCain," says Dickerson, "so expectations for a Bush win are pretty high."

Unlike their relatively staid Virginia counterparts, Washington GOP voters are notoriously difficult to pin down — and perhaps sensing that inscrutability, neither candidate has spent very much time there in recent weeks, although McCain gave Washingtonians a day or two last week, before heading to delegate-rich California. Washington's 37 delegates could go either way, but the odds may slightly favor McCain, despite a small but vocal bloc of religious conservative voters. "There's a very strong independent tradition in Washington," says Dickerson. Beyond the actual vote counts, Washington boasts another key ingredient for a McCain surge: A win here could be contagious, sweeping pro-McCain momentum into California.

"Neither Washington nor Virginia is all that important in and of itself," says TIME political correspondent John Dickerson. "A lot of folks are looking ahead to California and New York." And unless there is a major upset on the scale of a McCain sweep of all three states, Tuesday's votes will likely be considered a wash, says Dickerson. "These guys both want to concentrate on next week's contests."