The exclusion of Newt Gingrich from Virginia's presidential primary is heightening scrutiny of his campaign organization and the state's strict rules for ballot access.
The Republican Party of Virginia announced at 2:40 a.m. Saturday that Gingrich, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, had failed to amass the required 10,000 signatures of registered voters to get on the ballot for the March 6 primary. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are the only candidates whose names will appear on the ballot.
"For Gingrich it's a disaster," said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "He was the Virginia front-runner. It also sends a message to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire that his campaign isn't serious."
The former House speaker's campaign fired back Saturday.
"Only a failed system excludes four out of the six major candidates seeking access to the ballot," Gingrich campaign director Michael Krull said in a statement. "Voters deserve the right to vote for any top contender, especially leading candidates."
Krull said Gingrich, who lives in McLean, will pursue "an aggressive write-in campaign" to appear on the ballot.
But Sabato said a write-in campaign for Gingrich "is all in his head." State law prohibits write-in votes in Virginia's presidential primaries. Write-ins are allowed "at all elections except primary elections," the state code says.
"There is no ability for a candidate to be written in," confirmed Christopher Piper, manager of election services with the State Board of Elections.
The result is that "this has made the Virginia primary completely irrelevant," Sabato said, predicting that Romney will take most of the state's 49 delegates to the Republican National Convention.
Virginia has among the nation's most stringent requirements to get on a ballot for a presidential primary. A candidate must amass the signatures of 10,000 registered Virginia voters — including at least 400 from each of the state's 11 congressional districts. The person who circulates each petition also must be a qualified state voter. Collectively, those requirements put a premium on statewide organization, a test that five GOP presidential candidates could not meet.
The potential primary slate collapsed like a soufflé between Thursday evening and early Saturday.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman failed to submit signatures to the Board of Elections by Thursday's 5 p.m. deadline, which meant they were disqualified automatically. The Perry and Gingrich campaigns said they each submitted more than 11,000 signatures, but when volunteers vetted the names at state Republican headquarters Friday and early Saturday, neither mustered enough valid signatures to qualify.
Romney's campaign, headed by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, submitted more than 16,000 signatures. Paul's campaign submitted more than 14,000.
Virginia's rules regarding qualifications for the ballot in statewide elections are clear, said Tucker Martin, a spokesman for Gov. Bob McDonnell.
"Prior candidates for president, governor and senator, from both parties, have needed to meet the same requirements as are in place for this election. It is unfortunate that a number of candidates did not submit enough verified signatures to qualify for the March primary, but the system has been in place for a long time and the ballot requirements well-known," he said.
"The governor, however, is certainly disappointed that Virginia will not have a more competitive primary," Martin said. "He would have preferred to see more candidates make the ballot."
Paul Goldman, former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said Saturday that the state legislature, which convenes Jan. 11, should empower the secretary of the commonwealth to allow credible candidates to appear on the state's primary ballot.
"The Republican loyalists of Virginia should be entitled to vote in their primary for those credible candidates seeking the party's presidential nomination," he said.
"Bachmann, Huntsman, Gingrich, Perry and Santorum meet the test of legitimate candidates for the GOP nomination. They are getting 5 percent or more in key polls right now. Keeping them off the ballot denies the people their right to choose," Goldman said.
Sabato is no fan of Virginia's strict rules, put in place in the 1970s by a state legislature dominated by Democrats. But "you can't change the rules in the middle of the game," he said.
Another factor makes legislators unlikely to change the rules. All candidates for statewide office in Virginia face the same requirements to get on a primary ballot.
That means that next spring, the eight candidates for the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. — five Republicans and three Democrats — will face the same challenge to qualify for the June 12 Senate primary.
Lowering the hurdles would make it more likely that the front-runners — Democrat Timothy M. Kaine and Republican George Allen — would face costly or at least nettlesome primary opponents. Their allies in the legislature might not consider that an appealing prospect.
Gingrich led Romney among Virginia primary voters, 30 percent to 25 percent, in a poll released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University. No other GOP candidate broke single digits.
Gingrich made a last-ditch effort in Virginia to qualify for the primary ballot. He headlined a Thursday morning breakfast for the Republican Party of Virginia in Short Pump. Less than 48 hours later, the same state party told his campaign that he did not qualify for the primary ballot.
A Republican candidate needs 1,144 delegates to win the party's presidential nomination in August at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. Virginia, with 49 delegates, now has just one fewer than Florida, which was docked half of its delegates for moving up its primary to Jan. 31.
The presidential voting begins with a January blitz that includes the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, and primaries on Jan. 10 in New Hampshire, Jan. 21 in South Carolina and Jan. 31 in Florida.
While a dozen states vote before Virginia, the state's delegates still could matter, because this year many states are awarding their delegates proportionally and not in winner-take-all fashion. That means no one will lock up the nomination before March 6.
Should Gingrich surmount his difficulties and capture the Republican nomination, he would face a significant organizational disadvantage in the fight for Virginia's 13 electoral votes.
In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate in 44 years to win in Virginia. While the president's disapproval rating exceeds his approval rating in recent Virginia surveys, his campaign has reactivated the state organization it built four years ago.
The dizzying developments also are likely to strengthen Romney's loyalty to Bolling.
Last May, in a phone call from Des Moines, Iowa, Romney noted the challenge of getting on a primary ballot in Virginia. He told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he appreciates Bolling's abilities.
"If you want to get something done, you ask Bill to do it," Romney said. "Whether it's getting my name on the ballot, which required thousands of signatures, or getting me support in corners of the state I hadn't had a chance to visit, Bill gets it done."
If Romney were elected president in November 2012, his loyalty could boost Bolling in his 2013 battle with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.