The Battle for Hampton Roads

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 7, 2008

On her first campaign visit to Virginia, Michelle Obama made a case for her husband yesterday in Hampton Roads, a region that in previous years would have been considered safe territory for a Republican with a strong military background.

But this year, both parties predict that the heavily populated and racially diverse area, which is home to the world's largest naval base, will be one of the state's most competitive regions in the presidential race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, a Navy veteran.

"It's the key swing area in the state,'' said Phil Cox, a consultant for Republicans in Virginia. "As Hampton Roads goes, so goes the state."

Three months before the November election, Democrats and Republicans are pouring money, paid staff and other resources into Virginia, considered one of the nation's newest battleground states. No Democratic presidential candidate has carried Virginia since 1964, but Democrats won the past two gubernatorial elections and a high-profile Senate race in 2006.

Sen. Obama (Ill.), the presumptive Democratic president nominee, is expected to attract big majorities in Northern Virginia. McCain (Ariz.) probably will do well in much of the state's rural areas. That means that winning Virginia could come down to Hampton Roads, a region of midsize cities and sprawling suburbs in the state's southeastern corner that is home to core constituencies for both parties.

Republicans have traditionally carried the region, which is powered by large military and evangelical populations. But Democrats have made gains in recent state races, making inroads with the area's large African American population. Obama also will try to rally support from the region's 70,000 college students, a strategy highlighted by Michelle Obama's speech yesterday at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.

She spent the day reading to schoolchildren, speaking to military wives and mingling with hundreds of guests, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), at a fundraiser at the elegant Harrison Opera House, which served as a World War II USO theater.

"I'm so glad to be here in Norfolk,'' she said at Old Dominion. "I knew it was big. I knew hundreds of thousands of military personnel and family lived and worked here. But I wasn't prepared for just how big it is."

Obama was greeted warmly by the standing-room-only crowd of 200 in a small theater on campus. Many former military members, who asked questions about veterans' issues, attended.

Hampton Roads, a sprawling area of 1.6 million people in 17 localities including Norfolk and Virginia Beach, has gradually turned more Democratic in recent years.

Kaine won the region in 2005, and last year Democrats won seats previously held by Republicans in the House of Delegates and state Senate. In 2004, President Bush beat Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry (Mass.) by about 48,000 votes of 568,000 cast.

By traveling to Hampton Roads, the Obama campaign is not only trying to capitalize on the black and college-age population, but also is taking its message to military families disaffected with the Iraq war. More than 450,000 residents in the region have ties to the military, and more than 110,000 others are involved in military or civilian defense-related jobs.

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