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Bill Howell was ripe for conversion.
Attending the annual meeting of the free-market, limited-government American Legislative Exchange Council in downtown Philadelphia last July, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates had one eye on GOP presidential hopefuls. No one had plucked his heartstrings yet.
A private session with former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson — "I kind of thought he was going to be the knight on the white charger" — left Howell cold. The "Law & Order" actor seemed long on problems and short on answers.
Then came a luncheon speech by an obscure governor from Hope, Ark., and suddenly the music flowed. "He was dynamite," Howell says of Mike Huckabee. "One minute you were laughing; the next minute you were tearing up."
And that is how, a short time later, Howell was announced to the world as the Virginia state chair of the Huckabee for President campaign and how, in the wake of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Howell came to look like a political genius, miles ahead of the pack.
Brilliance can have a short shelf life in politics, of course. It took only a few days for New Hampshire voters to strip some of the luster from Huckabee's — and Howell's — Iowa triumph. Ditto for Gov. Tim Kaine, who looked visionary on the Democratic side when favorite Barack Obama swept aside Hillary Clinton in Iowa and slightly less so when Obama had to settle for a more modest, back-to-earth second in the Granite State.
It's still far too soon to say who will prevail in the Virginia presidential primaries Feb. 12. The situation in both parties remains too fluid. The nation's mega-primary on Feb. 5, stretching from New York to California, will dramatically reorder the board and possibly make the Virginia voting moot.
But it's not too early to ask how a politician from Virginia attaches to a presidential campaign and to evaluate the stakes for everyone involved.
Presidential endorsements are often a blend of gut feeling, accident and calculation. While few own up to strategizing, almost every politician embraces Rule No. 1: First, do no harm (to yourself). Most cast at least a passing nod to Rule No. 2: Help yourself while helping others, if you can.
It certainly did Kaine no harm, for instance, to back moderate-conservative Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2004 at a time when the future Gov. Kaine was trying to establish his bona fides as a political centrist.
This year's crop of endorsements follows the usual patterns. Sen. John Warner's backing of John McCain speaks to their long friendship. Kaine stumbled onto a soul mate when Obama volunteered to campaign for him in 2005. Among their similarities: Both graduated from Harvard Law; both are left-handed; both have mothers from El Dorado, Kan.; and both are civil-rights attorneys who embrace inclusive politics.
Some prominent figures like to play against type, as when Virginia Beach televangelist Pat Robertson endorsed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Others trust mutual friends and their own instincts, as when Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling tapped Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
A little courting can work wonders as well. While former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore was running for the GOP nomination, Bolling declined out of courtesy to endorse someone else. But for three days running after Gilmore dropped out, Romney was on the telephone urging "pick me." Soon, Bolling did.
It may prove telling that no prominent statewide Virginia politician has aligned with Hillary Clinton, although many legislators and key operatives in Democratic Party politics have. Clinton's high negatives in some state polls may scare off the most ambitious types; party loyalists don't care.
For presidential candidates scrambling to construct a 50-state organization, an in-state endorsement can bring instant access to voter lists, precinct workers and — at a minimum — an identifiable face to prop up beside your own. The stakes for those making the endorsements are considerable as well.
"It's a definite advantage to a faction or a political leader within a party to pick the right candidate and get to run the [presidential] campaign in the state," says Frank Atkinson, chronicler of Virginia's political history. Conversely, an early endorsement of the wrong person "puts you on the 'B' list for certain White House benefits, but nobody's going to talk about it."
In 2000, for example, Gilmore helped deliver Virginia for George W. Bush over John McCain at a critical moment in the national campaign. Gilmore wound up with a sweet plum, the helm of the Republican National Committee, until the relationship soured a year later.
A politician who picks a winner often becomes the go-to person within the state for recommendations on federal appointments and policies. At a minimum, he or she gets the inside skinny on how the state campaign was organized and run. That's a useful tool for anyone planning his or her own future statewide race.
"Politics is all about relationships," says Randy Marcus, Bolling's chief of staff. Some of those cultivated in the 2008 presidential race are likely to spill over to, say, Bolling's planned bid for governor in 2009.
At least, that's the hope.
No doubt Attorney General Bob McDonnell — Bolling's primary rival for the GOP nomination in '09 — harbored similar ambition when he endorsed Thompson's once-promising effort in Virginia a few months back. Now, if Romney's fortunes are wobbling, Thompson's have already toppled. Only a Lazarus-like miracle can resurrect him from the back lot of contenders.
McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin gamely downplays the disappointment. "The transitive property doesn't usually work in politics," he says — "90 percent of the time."
In the crapshoot of presidential politics, picking the wrong horse isn't likely to be fatal. But choosing the right one can yield a hefty payout. Winners and losers in the presidential sweepstakes extend well beyond Washington, D.C. SRichmonder Margaret Edds is a former editorial writer for The Virginian-Pilot.