Democrats who gathered last night in bars and restaurants and at small house parties across Virginia to watch John F. Kerry accept their party's nomination bubbled with anticipation at the possibility that, finally, their vote for president might just matter again.
Earlier, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) told a national audience what he and the leaders of the Massachusetts senator's campaign have been saying to pundits and reporters all week in Boston: that Virginia, which has not gone for a Democratic presidential candidate in four decades, is in play.
"Moses wandered in the desert for 40 years," Warner said in his convention speech. "Virginia has been wandering in the Republican desert for 40 years. But let me tell you: This Bush can't lead us to the promised land. This year, our wandering is over."
At Uncle Louie's in Norfolk, home to the world's largest naval base, Kerry supporters crowded around televisions to see the first Vietnam War veteran to become a major party nominee. It is at places such as Louie's -- a bar in a strip mall frequented by uniformed officers -- that Democrats are launching their drive to upend conventional wisdom.
The crowd there erupted when Kerry started with a salute.
"Yes, yes," they shouted moments later.
"He's slicing them up," said Wanda Byrd, whose husband is a retired naval officer. "Man, he is on fire, isn't he?" she asked her friends as the bar's crowd of about 120 rose out of their seats, waved flags and shouted approval.
Census figures show that more than one-third of the residents in some counties around Norfolk, which President Bush narrowly carried in 2000, are veterans. Many more are active-duty military men and women.
Audrey Weston, 47, the wife of a naval petty officer who has served in Afghanistan and Iraq, predicted that Kerry would carry Virginia because so many military families, like hers, are disillusioned with Bush.
"It's almost like they've been in a tunnel and they've just been awakened," she said.
Starting in 1968, the Democrat presidential nominee has always lost to the Republican in Virginia and neither major party has bothered to buy television ads, mail glossy fliers, stage rallies or hold news conferences. And as the candidates traveled across America, they usually skipped right over the commonwealth.
This year, though, Kerry strategists and leading Democrats in Virginia are convinced they have a shot at the state's 13 electoral votes because of dissatisfaction among veterans, lost jobs in rural areas and the changing demographics of Northern Virginia.
Kerry has been to the state four times since he clinched the nomination in the primaries, and his advisers promise more visits. By contrast, Kerry's advisers have said, Al Gore and Bush hardly visited the state in 2000, when Bush won the state 52 percent to 44 percent.
Republican leaders scoff at the notion that their electoral streak might be coming to an end.
Ken Hutcheson, state director for Bush's effort in Virginia, said he does not see evidence of a shift from Republican domination in the commonwealth. And he predicted that Kerry's attention to Virginia will fade as it becomes clear that Bush is too far ahead.
"I don't doubt for a minute they are trying to put it into play," Hutcheson said. "I don't believe a liberal, Massachusetts, flip-flopping senator will persuade Virginia voters with Virginia values to break a trend that we've been carrying since 1964."
Hutcheson noted that Democrats offer no hard proof to support their claims. There are no public polls to support their contention, in part because -- unlike some states targeted by Democrats -- Virginia does not have a competitive statewide race for U.S. Senate or governor that would prompt public polls. The campaign declines to release results of its private polling.
Last night, a dozen Democrats huddled around a big-screen TV in the basement of a home in Cloverdale, just north of Roanoke. The crowd groaned when Kerry saluted. "He's playing this up, isn't he?" Mark Hanson, 48, said.
But when Kerry made a remark about Vice President Cheney, several people yelled, "All right!"
Josh Avondoglio, 19, said: "I've never seen him like this. He seems real animated." Still, several were skeptical about Kerry's chances to carry their rural community.
"Maybe he will take Virginia, but not Botetourt County,'' said Wesley Crow, 63, of Roanoke. In 2000, the county voted for Bush over Gore 64 percent to 33 percent.
At the CarPool in Arlington, meanwhile, the crowd was not an organized partisan gathering. And though the speech was put on the restaurant's big screen and the music was turned down, only a few paid attention.
Jason Rizzo, 29, of Arlington County said he considers himself an "extraordinary liberal." But last night, he had gone out to relax, and he said he wasn't going to listen. "I'll read the transcript tomorrow," he said.
Kerry's senior advisers said Warner, who is popular in Virginia, has re-energized Democratic voters and is giving credibility to Kerry's campaign themes.
"Because [Warner] is so highly regarded, his testimony matters," Kerry pollster Mark Mellman said.
Kerry's Virginia campaign director, Susan Swecker, said the campaign "turned a few heads when Virginia was put on the list" of states that are considered competitive enough to merit time and money.
The message has been pushed at the convention as Virginia officials and others traveled the halls of Boston's FleetCenter, met with editorial boards, granted interviews on national television and spoke to delegates at parties and receptions.
John J. Sweeney, president of the national AFL-CIO, told a group of Maryland reporters he believes labor's strength in Virginia will help Kerry win the state.
"We have a good labor movement in Virginia. We're doing the same kind of work in Virginia as Maryland," Sweeney said.
At the Sine Irish Pub in Arlington last night, about 40 people attended a convention party. When Kerry came on the television screens, the Arlington Young Democrats stopped flirting and networking and belted out hollers of support.
One supporter there, Jason Faberman, 28, predicted that Kerry's selection of Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) as his running mate will help him win in Virginia.
"He can go to Roanoke or Norfolk and connect with those people" in the southern part of the state, Faberman said.
Warner and senior Kerry officials said the influx of immigrants in Northern Virginia has created a diverse population, which Democrats hope is much more likely to vote for a candidate from their party.
The officials also said that the loss of jobs in the state's rural areas provides an opening for Kerry. Layoffs in textile plants, furniture manufacturers and the tobacco industry during the past four years have left a trail of voters who are disaffected with Bush, they said.
"There's been tremendous economic dislocation in the South," Mellman said. "The bad economy has helped them to sour on Bush."
Democratic campaign officials in Virginia said they believe their state is winnable in part because of Kerry's decorated service in Vietnam, which could appeal to military veterans, and the perception among some in the military that Bush's policies in Iraq and Afghanistan are bad for the country.
Hutcheson said he believes the state's veterans will continue to support Bush because of his conservative credentials. Virginia Republican Party Chairman Kate Obenshain Griffin said she has no doubts of GOP success.
"I am confident President Bush will carry his positive and optimistic message to a great victory in Virginia," she said.
But Kerry's campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, said the campaign believes strongly that Virginia is "a possibility for us." And she said similar arguments can be made for other southern states that President Bush won in 2000. She cited North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas as Democratic targets.
"The math is very different than it was in the year 2000," Cahill said in a recent interview with editors and reporters.
Staff writers Karin Brulliard, Steven Ginsberg, Annie Gowen and Eric M. Weiss contributed to this report.