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Clinton, Obama Each Claim Footing To Push Shifting Va. Across the Aisle
"Without question, he is the most compelling candidate that our party offers and the most compelling candidate in recent memory," Boucher said.
But some Democrats worry Obama's image in parts of the state might change if he becomes the nominee. They point to Tennessee, where former congressman Harold Ford, an African American, lost his Senate bid in 2006. In that race, national Republicans and various conservative interest groups waged a campaign against him that some Democrats argue was filled with racial undertones.
At Liz's Place, the local breakfast joint in Sutherland, Va., in the heavily Republican south-central part of the state, some customers said Obama might run into difficulty because of his race and name.
"He would have a whole lot better chance if his name was George or Fred or Bob. Actually, not George. Fred or Bob," said regular Jane Meyers, who voted twice for President Bush but is willing to give Obama and Clinton a chance to win her vote this fall.
GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said Obama's real challenge in many parts of Virginia will be his voting record. National Journal ranked Obama as the most liberal senator in 2007.
"What new could you possibly tell a voter about Hillary Clinton that they don't already know?" Fabrizio asked. "On Hillary, the cake is already baked in the voter's mind. The guy who isn't baked in the voter's mind is Barack Obama. At the end of the day, his issue positions would be his undoing in a state like Virginia."
Even so, several voters at Liz's Place were willing to give Obama a chance, and they've ruled out Clinton.
"The Clinton name has really soured me," said Wayne Martin, 69. "When she put up with Bill's shenanigans, I was done with both of them."
Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said large concentrations of voters such as Martin are one reason so many Virginia Democrats have rallied behind Obama.
Holsworth said Obama appears to be a better fit for the strategy Kaine perfected in the 2005 campaign, which emphasized such everyday issues as education and transportation instead of social concerns.
"Virginia Democrats run statewide campaigns, where they mobilize the Democratic base but also have something else that gives them an appeal beyond that base," Holsworth said. "I think most Democratic leaders are more comfortable Obama fits that model."
The Republican Kaine defeated in 2005, former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R), said Obama will be a formidable Democratic candidate if he gets the nomination.
"We already defined her," Kilgore said of Clinton. "We have some work to do on Obama."
Staff writers Mark Berman and Jay Mathews contributed to this report.