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Appearances Put Virginia On the Map for November

Hillary Rodham Clinton officially suspended her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination Saturday at a rally in Washington, DC. "The way to continue our fight now ... is to take our energy, our passion, our strength, and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama the next president of the United States," she told her supporters.

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By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama chose Virginia as the starting point of his general election campaign yesterday, sending a clear signal to voters and Republicans that he plans to compete hard in a state that past Democratic presidential candidates largely ignored.

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With Obama hoping to shake up voting patterns across the country, it looks increasingly as if Virginia will be a center of his strategy for amassing the 270 electoral votes he will need to defeat Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee.

"To go to a Southern state right off the bat and lay down a marker is very smart politics for Barack Obama," said Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist who orchestrated the 2006 victory of Sen. James Webb (D-Va.). "Obama has made a statement to voters in some of these potential swing areas and the South that, 'I am going to bring my message here and I am not going to be intimidated by past voting patterns.' "

Many Republicans, and some Democrats, say Obama faces long odds in Virginia, which has 13 electoral votes and last supported a Democratic presidential nominee in 1964. Many of the same national security and social issues that tripped up past Democratic candidates will probably hamper Obama, and Virginia voters have a long record of making a candidate's experience a key factor in their votes.

"The Democratic model in Virginia in the last four to six years has been to run as an honest-to-goodness centrist, even though they don't govern that way . . . and I think Obama is going to be a tough sell," said Del. Christopher B. Saxman (R-Staunton), co-chairman of McCain's Virginia campaign, who noted that Obama had an F rating from the National Rifle Association and supports some tax increases.

But Democrats suggest that Obama is uniquely qualified to put Virginia in play. They point out that the state has changed demographically in the past four years, becoming more diverse, more suburban and wealthier -- factors that helped secure statewide victories for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Webb. In addition, Virginia has a significant African American population (about 20 percent) and is home to a comparatively well-educated electorate in vote-rich Northern Virginia, constituencies that have supported Obama in huge numbers.

So Obama roared into Virginia yesterday, borrowing parts of the strategies of Kaine and former governor Mark R. Warner, who is running for the U.S. Senate this year. Kaine, Webb and Warner all have been mentioned as possible vice presidential picks for Obama, further increasing the focus on Virginia.

In Bristol in southwestern Virginia's coal country, Obama took his campaign to the heart of the Appalachian region, where Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) ran strong in the primaries. Obama was joined by Warner, who has appealed to rural voters.

"Seven years ago, you all didn't know me that well," said Warner, who lives in Alexandria but managed to win a majority of the rural vote in his 2001 run for governor. "I asked you to take a chance on me. . . . I am asking you something again today. I am asking you and all the people listening to take the time to get to know [Obama]. This is a good man. This is a man of deep faith."

Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat who represents southwestern Virginia, said Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate in decades to visit that part of the state during a general election campaign.

Last night, Obama, joined by Kaine and Webb, headlined a rally at Nissan Pavilion in Prince William County -- a growing and diversifying outer suburb that Kaine mined for Democratic votes during his 2005 campaign.

Of the states that President Bush won handily in 2004, Virginia might be one of Obama's best pickup opportunities, Democrats said. Since Bush's first election in 2000, the occupant of the governor's mansion changed from red to blue -- and stayed blue. A popular GOP senator lost his seat to Webb, and the state Senate turned Democratic. Democrats also point out that Virginia was the first state to elect an African American governor, L. Douglas Wilder (D) in 1989.


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