By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008
RICHMOND -- For the first time in decades, Virginia is shaping up as a presidential battleground as advisers to Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama lay plans to compete in the fall for the state's 13 electoral votes.
Aides to McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, and to Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, say they will invest heavily in winning Virginia, which could set the stage for a barrage of television ads, voter registration drives and campaign visits by the candidates.
"I think it is a battleground state," said Rick Davis, McCain's national campaign manager. "I know they are targeting it, and we are certainly targeting it."
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), an early Obama supporter, said, "I know this for sure: Virginians are going to see a lot more of these candidates in person than they have seen in quite some time."
The battle for Virginia could be decisive in determining which candidate wins the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. But there will also be campaigns for the seats held by U.S. Sen. John W. Warner and U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, both Republicans who are retiring. National Democrats, optimistic that they can pick up the Warner and Davis seats, also plan to target three incumbent House Republicans.
"Virginia has changed dramatically over the years, but the question will be, has it changed enough?" said Larry J. Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.
Virginia has supported a Democratic presidential candidate only once since 1948 -- Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 -- but the recent string of Democratic victories has Republicans vowing to redouble their efforts in the state this year.
Officials in both parties say McCain starts with an edge over Obama in Virginia, a state President Bush carried by 262,000 votes in 2004. A prisoner of war during Vietnam, McCain expects to do well among the state's 800,000 veterans.
But Democrats are emboldened by the state's diversifying demographics, Bush's low approval ratings and statistics showing 131,000 newly registered voters so far this year, nearly half of whom are under 25.
Democrats also think they will have a formidable trio of Obama, Kaine and U.S. Senate candidate Mark R. Warner selling the party's message in Virginia.
As he proved with his 30-point win in the state's Democratic primary Feb. 12, Obama has amassed tens of thousands of loyal supporters in Virginia, a state where African Americans make up 20 percent of the population and residents from increasingly Democratic Northern Virginia account for one in three registered voters.
Mark Warner, a former governor with a reputation as a ferocious competitor, will be the Democratic nominee for Senate. Favored to win his race against either former Republican governor James S. Gilmore III or Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), Warner might campaign with Obama, perhaps boosting the senator's appeal in rural Virginia, where Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton ran strong in the primary.
Obama's efforts in Virginia will probably be headed by Kaine, who proved his political skill last year by helping the Democrats retake the state Senate.
"It's a very powerful and persuasive ticket," U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said of Obama, Warner and Kaine. "We will have a Democratic team in Virginia that is as strong as any ticket that any state can put together."
Sensing the threat, McCain opened his Virginia headquarters in Pentagon City on Monday, giving him an early advantage over Obama, who is still battling Clinton (D-N.Y.) but has a majority of the pledged delegates needed to secure the nomination.
John H. Hager, chairman of the Virginia Republican Party, said the GOP is trying to learn from its recent losses by trying to blunt what has become a polished Democratic get-out-the vote effort.
"We are serious about taking advantage of the time we have now before the Democrats finalize a candidate by reactivating and re-energizing the Republican base in Virginia," said Hager, who met with senior McCain staffers last month in New Mexico to begin planning strategy for the fall campaign.
Hager said state GOP officials, who partnered with McCain to open the Pentagon City headquarters, plan to double the number of Republican volunteers and raise at least $2 million by November. The party also plans to begin an aggressive phone bank operation.
Del. Christopher B. Saxman (R-Staunton), McCain's Virginia chairman, predicts McCain will do well enough in the state to boost the entire GOP ticket, including U.S. Reps. Frank R. Wolf, Thelma Drake and Virgil H. Goode Jr., all of whom are facing well-funded Democratic challengers.
"We understand the trend in Virginia, but issues at the national level are very different than issues on a state level," said Saxman, who added that McCain will campaign in the state June 9.
Obama hasn't campaigned in Virginia since February, but Democrats say if he gets the nomination, he should be able to quickly merge his grass-roots network of supporters with Kaine and Warner's political operations, which the Virginia politicians have been building since 2001.
Led by Mike Henry, Warner's campaign manager, Democrats have hired regional field coordinators for every part of the state. The coordinators, other paid staffers and volunteers plan to start knocking on doors in mid-June to identify potential Democratic voters, adding them to the list of nearly 1 million voters who turned out to vote in the Democratic primary.
Henry and Elisabeth Pearson, director of the Democratic coordinated campaign, will focus considerable resources on suburban Richmond and Washington's fast growing outer suburbs, two areas they think have hidden pockets of potential Democratic voters.
Political analysts say Obama will need to win over suburban voters as well turn out record numbers of African Americans to defeat McCain, who will likely rack up big margins in rural Virginia and parts of Hampton Roads.
U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) noted that Obama drew 18,000 at a rally in Virginia Beach a few days before the primary. "That is the basis for a very strong grass-roots organization," Scott said. "If everyone who showed up just put in a couple hours, that would certainly be a very vigorous ground operation."
In Northern Virginia, Obama will be trying to replicate the success of Kaine and U.S. Sen. James Webb (D) in getting about 60 percent of the vote in Fairfax County, where as many as a half-million people could turn out on Election Day. One in seven Virginia residents lives in Fairfax, which Bush lost by 6 percentage points in 2004.
In Arlington County, where Kaine and Webb received nearly three-quarters of the vote in their races, Democrats are hoping Warner and Obama can get 80 percent of the vote this year.
"I think the cards are aligning just right to pull this off," said Peter Rousselot, chairman of the Arlington County Democratic Committee, noting that 83 percent of the Arlington residents who voted in the Feb. 12 primary asked for a Democratic ballot. "A big, heavy registration drive is ongoing right now."
James E. Hyland, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, predicts Democrats will fall short of their targets in Northern Virginia because of McCain's military background and his moderate stances on some issues.
"Republicans have come to realize he is the best type of candidate we can nominate," said Hyland, who plans to start contacting the 100,000 Fairfax residents he thinks are open to supporting either McCain or Obama.
Sabato, who noted that past Democratic presidential candidates have abandoned the state by the fall, said he expects both political parties to be at the top of their game this year.
"It is not as if Republicans are just going to sit on their hands and say, 'Isn't that interesting, Obama is mobilizing young people and African Americans,' " said Sabato, who thinks Obama faces an uphill battle in Virginia. "Mobilization begets counter-mobilization."