The New Old Dominion

Obama is poised to carry the new Virginny back into the Democratic column.

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Since 1964, one thing that's been as inevitable as death and taxes has been that Virginia would wind up in the red column in presidential elections. The Old Dominion's loyalty to the Republican Party was so secure that GOP candidates made only token appearances in the state.

This year things are different. If the polls can be believed, Barack Obama has a good chance of garnering Virginia's 13 electoral votes in November. If he can add Virginia to the states John Kerry won four years ago, that would be enough to give him the White House.

And that's just what some experts believe will happen. David Bositis, an expert on voting behavior at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, predicts that "Obama will win Virginia quite comfortably. If I were to guess, I would say he's going to win Virginia by 5 percentage points."

Other experts are not willing to go that far, but they agree that a dramatic turnaround could be in the making. "History tells us John McCain should do well in Virginia, but polls are hinting at a potential upset," says political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. "We'll have to see on Election Day if the Old Dominion's voters stick with a 50-plus year near-habit of voting for Republican presidential nominees, or they buck the trend. Right now, no one can say with certainty who will win Virginia. It really is a toss-up."

That uncertainly explains why both sides are investing so much time in Virginia. Obama has made numerous appearances in the state and plans to go to Leesburg Wednesday. John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, following warnings from Republican leaders that Virginia was slipping away, made a late-in-the-political-season foray in the hopes of cutting into Obama's 51.2 percent to 44.8 percent lead in Pollster's latest survey. The GOP standard-bearers began the day with a rally in Virginia Beach, a traditional Republican stronghold. Then Palin peeled off for a solo appearance in Richmond, where she drew a crowd of 20,000 to the parking lot of the city's NASCAR stadium.

Whatever good those appearances did for McCain may have been undercut by a new controversy. Last week TIME magazine reported that in talk to campaign volunteers, state GOP Chairman Jeffrey M. Frederick had likened Obama to Osama bin Laden, saying that "Both have friends that bombed the Pentagon." It was just the sort of outrageous, race-baiting rhetoric that McCain has been seeking to avoid since commentators, including some staunch conservatives, criticized the ugly racial taunting that broke out at Palin rallies. All this was preceded by the firing of Bobby May, McCain's campaign chairman in Buchanan County, for writing a racially inflammatory column in a local newspaper.

There are several reasons for Obama's strong showing in Virginia, starting with big changes in the state's demographic make-up. The northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. contain six of the nation's 100 fastest-growing counties, and they are increasingly young and Democratic leaning. Says Bositis, "Northern Virginia has an increasingly diverse and educated population. It also is becoming an increasingly dominant part of the state population. Richmond is no longer the heart of Virginia. Fairfax is the heart of Virginia and the part where the most important parts of the economy are. There's an increasingly large immigrant population in Virginia which not only no longer can be appealed to by traditional Southern political messages, but in fact, find those traditional Southern political messages offensive."

A case in point: Two years ago incumbent Republican George Allen lost his seat in the U.S. Senate to Democrat Jim Webb after videotape captured Allen insulting a Webb supporter of Indian descent with the offensive nickname, "Macaca."

The downturn in the economy has hit Virginia hard and led to layoff after layoff in the state's financial, retail and high-tech sectors.

And beyond that, Obama has made an unprecedented effort, opening more than 100 offices in every nook and cranny of the state and registering thousands of new voters. McCain's voter registration and mobilization efforts have been far less extensive. Says Sabato: "The Obama campaign has put together a pretty good ground game in Virginia. McCain's seems to still be a work in progress."

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