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Virginia Republicans are wooed in Tampa

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TAMPA — So this is what it feels like to be Michigan.

Tagg Romney, Mitt Romney’s eldest son, makes a beeline from the airport to pop in, as a little surprise, on your breakfast. Your governor gets a prime-time speaking slot. Ditto for your governor’s daughter. Even a state delegate gets a turn. And no matter who’s on the Republican National Convention stage, you have a front-row seat.

Virginia Republicans have it all this year and they owe it all to, well, President Obama.

“For the first time ever, at both conventions, Virginia will be the belle of the ball,” said Tucker Martin, spokesman for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

Virginia joined the ranks of battleground states after Obama broke the Democrats’ 40-year losing streak in the Commonwealth in 2008. Hardly anyone thought the Old Dominion was in danger of going blue at convention time four years ago, so Virginia got the reliably red treatment: Nice to see you, here’s your seat in the back of the hall.

Now both sides say the election could come down to the Commonwealth and a handful of other battleground states. And that means the GOP is rolling out the red carpet for Virginia in Tampa.

“We’ve been taken for granted in some past years and this year we’re a have-to-win,” said Barbara Bowie-Whitman, a retired State Department trade negotiator from Alexandria.

That’s most evident in the front-row convention seats, just stage left from dead-center Michigan and Wisconsin, with its own Rep. Paul Ryan on the ticket.

Virginia had decent seats in Minneapolis four years ago, but as a state that had been safely in Republicans’ pockets since 1968, it usually got the cheap seats.

“The Romney gang told me we’d have good seats, but I had no idea,” said Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), state chairman of Romney’s campaign. “There’s not a better seat in the house.”

And then there’s the action on the stage.

McDonnell, who had been mentioned as a vice presidential contender, will give an address focused on jobs and the economy sometime after 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The next night, right before 8, his daughter Jeanine McDonnell, a 31-year-old Army veteran who served in Iraq, will help introduce Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Del. Barbara Comstock (R-Fairfax) will have an afternoon speaking role.

Star treatment at the convention comes on top of what’s been happening back home. Hardly a week goes by lately when Obama, Romney, Vice President Biden or Ryan is not making a trip to the state. Romney unveiled Ryan as his No. 2 in Norfolk. Obama appears in Charlottesville on Wednesday.

Both sides have also inundated Virginia airwaves with TV ads as never before. That feels like a backhanded compliment to Virginia viewers weary of the spots, but it’s a compliment nonetheless.

All the attention was welcome at the convention. With the main event shut down Monday because of a hurricane threat, the delegation only had a breakfast at the hotel on its agenda. But that turned out to be a thrill when Tagg Romney and actor Jon Voight popped in unannounced.

Voight, who is active in Republican politics, dropped in on a Virginia delegation event four years ago. He was warmly welcomed then as now. But delegates were even more thrilled with Tagg Romney’s appearance, taking it as a nod to the state’s importance.

Tagg Romney shared a quick story about how he’d lost a small dinghy anchor while boating as a kid, and how his dad — “the cheapest human being alive,” he said — made him go find it out in the Atlantic.

Delegates took in two messages. One was about Mitt the dad, instilling a lesson on responsibility and fiscal prudence. The other was about Mitt the candidate, telegraphing how important Virginia is to him by dispatching his firstborn to the state’s reps in Tampa.

“I think it shows the importance that Virginia’s going to play in this election,” said Wendell Walker, 59, of Lynchburg, a landscaper who counts Liberty University among his clients. “I would anticipate more speakers of that caliber. . . .

News that Tagg Romney had dropped in on the Virginia breakfast had delegates from true-blue Rhode Island green with envy. Rhode Island, the other state sharing the Clearwater Marriott, had no breakfast speaker Monday.

“Tagg was here?” exclaimed Lynda Adams-Robitaille, whose husband, John, ran for governor of Rhode Island in 2010. That state’s seats at the convention hall are in the very last row.

If Virginians were treated to big-name breakfast guests last time around, they didn’t leave a big impression. Walker struggled to remember the name of one.

“The guy that does the [Sean] Hannity program,” he said. “He wrote a book. Oh, what is his name.”

He’ll have no trouble remembering Tagg Romney’s name, or his seat in the convention hall, which he intended to photograph to give to his grandchildren as a historical keepsake.

These swing-state perks come with a dark lining, however.

“We’d prefer not to be a swing state at all, but it’s always nice to get the golden treatment,” said Pete Snyder, a technology entrepreneur leading Virginia’s coordinated campaign.

Brian O’Connor, 59, a retired upholsterer from Rice, Va., would trade it all to have the election in the bag.

“Honestly,” he said, “I wish Mitt Romney was up 20 points in Virginia.”

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