By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 11, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama said yesterday at a town hall meeting in Fairfax County that if elected president, he would bolster the economy by helping working mothers. It was his second visit to the area since becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee and occurred on a day when his likely Republican foe was also reaching out to Northern Virginia voters.
In the packed gymnasium at Robinson Secondary School, Obama told more than 2,000 supporters that as president he would work to expand paid family and medical leave, child-care services and preschool programs. These initiatives could be paid for in large part by ending the Iraq war, he said.
Obama also spoke briefly of the significance of his return to Virginia less than two months after he launched his general election campaign at a rally of 10,000 supporters at Nissan Pavilion in Prince William County.
"It is wonderful to be back in Virginia," he said to thunderous applause. "We did well in the primary election in Virginia, and we want to do well in the general election.
Sen. John McCain, who spent the day in Michigan and Minnesota, also spoke to Northern Virginia voters yesterday, in a telephone conference. And immediately after Obama's speech, a group of Republican women, including Susan Allen, wife of former governor and U.S. senator George Allen, assailed Obama for endorsing a plan that the women said would cause taxes to rise, hurting middle-class families.
The events yesterday underscored Virginia's significance in the fall election. Although the state has backed the Republican in every presidential contest for the past four decades, the state is widely considered to be up for grabs. Both candidates have been airing television ads in Virginia and have opened multiple field offices in the state.
The Illinois Democrat benefits from the state's sizable African American population and his personal friendship with Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, whose wife, Anne Holton, accompanied Obama to the podium yesterday and delivered introductory remarks.
Obama's campaign also expects to draw strength from a swelling, shifting Northern Virginia electorate that has helped usher a string of Democrats to victory in the state. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who is running for Congress and spoke before Obama yesterday, said his populous, blue-tinged county could lead Virginia to support a Democrat for president for the first time since 1964.
"If we do our job here in Fairfax County, we're going to make sure that Virginia is carried by Barack Obama," he said.
But Republicans dominate politics elsewhere in the state, and McCain's supporters say they are not ceding Northern Virginia. In her rebuttal to Obama's talk yesterday, Allen sought to highlight McCain's ties to the area, noting that the Arizona Republican attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria, has family in the state and lives in Arlington while Congress is in session. McCain also was stationed at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach as a young aviator.
"We do have this visitor to Virginia today, the other candidate," Allen said. "But John McCain is no stranger to Virginia. . . . He knows our hearts. He knows Virginia values."
Later yesterday, McCain spoke to independent and moderate voters from Northern Virginia in a conference call. The invitation-only discussion covered a range of issues, including energy independence, taxes, the mortgage crisis and the rising cost of food and fuel.
He accused Obama of supporting programs that require tax increases.
"When I see that Senator Obama has dusted off all the old liberal big government policies of the '60s and '70s, I think he's Jimmy Carter II," he said.
Hundreds lined up yesterday morning outside Robinson to attend the Obama event, which was billed as a town hall meeting geared toward economic issues and women. The event was not one of the raucous, concert-like rallies that Obama has held across the country, aside from the signature chant of "Yes, we can!" that occasionally erupted in the crowd.
Both candidates have been highlighting plans to boost the economy this week. Obama spoke at length yesterday of his support for legislation to ensure equal pay for men and women who do the same jobs.
"We take it for granted that women are the backbone of our families," Obama said. "But we also want to make sure that women are the backbone of our middle class. We won't truly have an economy that puts the needs of the middle class first until we ensure that, when it comes to pay and benefits at work, women are treated as the equal partners that they are."
Obama has been seeking for weeks to improve relations with older white women who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for president and felt personally stung by her defeat. But some of the women who showed up yesterday said Obama had little to worry about.
"See the color of my hair? See the color of my skin? See how old I am?" said Carole Richard, 76, who is white and a retired gerontologist from Fairfax. "Obama is a breath of fresh air."