By Bill Turque and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 7, 2008
Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, digging in for a delegate-by-delegate fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, returned to Washington yesterday with plans to make Tuesday's Virginia primary a major battleground.
Strategists in both campaigns had once regarded Obama (Ill.) as well-positioned to sweep Virginia, Maryland and the District in next week's first-ever regional primary. All three jurisdictions are rich in the African American, upper-income and independent voters who have sustained his campaign.
But advisers to Clinton (N.Y.) are now mapping out a strategy that does not exclude Maryland and the District but focuses heavily on fast-growing outer suburbs such as Prince William and Loudoun counties in Northern Virginia and the state's economically struggling rural southwest, where unemployment is high among white working-class voters.
Clinton, who is scheduled to meet with students at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County this afternoon, said she is moving "full speed ahead" into the Washington region. Her appearance is part of increasingly frenetic campaigning by candidates in both parties in the area, where the first significant wave of votes since the inconclusive Super Tuesday primaries will be cast.
Obama and Clinton have committed to attending Saturday's Jefferson-Jackson Democratic dinner in Richmond. On the GOP side, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) are scheduled to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference today in the District. Romney is expected to appear at a Republican dinner in Baltimore County this evening.
But it is Virginia that is expected to be the most heavily contested turf over the next six days in what has been variously dubbed the Potomac, Chesapeake or Beltway primary.
Clinton and Obama enter the state all but deadlocked after Tuesday's contests in 22 states. Both sides are preparing for a weeks-long slog in which virtually every delegate takes on huge significance.
Each campaign boasts strong ties to the state's leading Democrats. Obama is backed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Rep. Robert C. Scott (D), the state's only black congressman.
Clinton's deputy campaign manager, Mike Henry, directed Kaine's 2005 campaign, which relied in part on winning Prince William and Loudoun. Mo Elleithee, a communications specialist, and Matt Felan, a finance official, who have extensive Virginia roots, are working on her state strategy. Mame Reilly of Alexandria, a confidante of former governor Mark R. Warner and the head of a Democratic National Committee caucus on women, is one of her most prominent supporters in the state.
Obama strategists have broken Virginia into four parts -- Northern Virginia, Richmond, Charlottesville and the Tidewater area -- all of which are filled with the voters they seek. He is expected to hold events in all four areas as he blitzes the region Sunday and Monday.
Kevin Griffis, an Obama spokesman, said the Illinois senator will be more appealing than Clinton to Northern Virginians, including the area's significant number of self-described independents. In Virginia, voters are free to decide on Election Day which party's primary they will participate in.
"Barack has proven he can do well with voters . . . in Northern Virginia," Griffis said. The inner suburbs of Arlington and Alexandria are populated by many recent immigrants and young professionals.
Strategists say African Americans could make up 25 percent of Virginians voting in the Democratic primary. Scott, the congressman, said he expects Obama to win a solid majority of those voters but warned that he should not underestimate Clinton's black support.
"You have two candidates that are both frankly deserving of a good vote in the African American community, and they will have to look very closely at which would be the stronger candidate," said Scott, who added that he is convinced Obama would be the superior candidate in the general election.
Yesterday, Obama's team announced that Kaine's wife, Anne Holton, and Warner's wife, Lisa Collis, are helping lead the group Virginia Women for Obama.
"We desperately need to tell the world it's a new day, and for so many reasons he would be the man to do that," said Holton, daughter of former Virginia governor A. Linwood Holton Jr., who in 1969 became the state's first Republican governor in the 20th century.
Clinton, who has lent her campaign $5 million to underwrite the post-Super Tuesday push, will pursue older white professional women in Northern Virginia. Her strategists also see an opportunity in southwest Virginia, where unemployment and the lack of affordable health care are major issues. They see conditions in the region as similar to those in neighboring Tennessee, which Clinton won Tuesday, and in rural Missouri, where she also did well, though she narrowly lost the state to Obama.
She was endorsed this week by Democrats in Wise County in southwest Virginia, though the area's congressman, Rick Boucher, is supporting Obama.
"Whether she wins or loses, it is going to be close," said Reilly, the Warner confidante. "And even if she loses it by a couple of points, she is going to have a healthy share of delegates."
But Clinton might encounter difficulty connecting with southwest Virginians, who have been hit hard by plant closings, said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a former strategist for John Edwards, who dropped out of the race. He said many people there blame the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Saunders said Obama will also have to work hard to introduce himself to that region, an uphill feat in what amounts to a five-day campaign.
Political strategists said it might be difficult for either Clinton or Obama to predict who will show up at the polls. Virginia hasn't had a contested Democratic primary for governor or U.S. senator in more than a decade. The last seriously competitive Democratic presidential primary was in 1988, when Jesse Jackson won with 45 percent of the vote.
"You are just going into a void of unknowns," said David Petts, a pollster who works for state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who is running for governor in 2009. "There is no primary history, and judging turnout has been very critical in all the contests so far."
Staff writer Tim Craig in Richmond contributed to this report.