Obama Courts Southside Virginia

Days before the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama focuses on the economy during a town hall meeting Wednesday in Martinsville, Va. Obama says the country cannot afford four more years of President Bush's policies. Video by AP
By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

MARTINSVILLE, Va., Aug. 20 -- Sen. Barack Obama lamented the loss of U.S. jobs Wednesday as he campaigned in a region of southern Virginia that in recent elections has spurned Democratic presidential candidates.

Obama came to economically distressed Southside alongside Mark R. Warner, a popular former governor who seven years ago made the strongest electoral showing in rural Virginia of any statewide Democratic candidate in a generation. Warner is running for U.S. Senate, and Democrats hope he can help Obama snare Virginia's 13 electoral votes.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee spoke to workers laid off from nearby factories at a packed town hall meeting in a cavernous warehouse here used by Patrick Henry Community College to train workers in the auto-racing industry. U.S. flags and race cars surrounded the stage.

"You're worried about the future. Here people have gone through very tough times," the Illinois senator said. "When you've got entire industries that have shipped overseas, when you've got thousands of jobs being lost. . . . That's tough."

With speculation about his vice presidential choice mounting by the hour, Obama worked his way slowly across southern Virginia by bus, returning to the populist talk on the economy that had shaped the earliest days of the general election campaign.

After his Martinsville appearance, Obama had an event in Lynchburg before heading to Richmond for the night -- a destination that, as the home of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), had potentially significant ramifications. Kaine is one of Obama's likeliest vice presidential picks, on a short list with a handful of others. Kaine is scheduled to appear with Obama Thursday in Chester, outside Richmond.

Less than three months before the November election, Democrats and Republicans have increased spending, television advertising and paid staff in Virginia, which has become a battleground. No Democratic presidential candidate has won Virginia since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, but Democrats won the past two gubernatorial elections and a high-profile Senate race in 2006.

Democrats expect Obama to win big in Northern Virginia, perform well in competitive Hampton Roads and attract large numbers of African American and younger voters. But their strategy, much like Warner's winning formula in 2001, also includes securing as many votes as possible in Southside, where Obama ran ahead of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in February on his way to a landslide victory in the state's primary.

"It's going to be tough territory for Barack Obama to win," said House of Delegates Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (Henry), one of the region's few elected Democrats. "But the goal is to get as many votes as you possibly can. Every vote is one vote closer to carrying Virginia."

In recent years, the south-central part of Virginia near the North Carolina border has suffered the wane of the once-booming tobacco industry and the shuttering of numerous textile and furniture factories. Thousands of residents have seen jobs move overseas, leaving the area with the state's highest unemployment rate.

U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, a prominent Republican from Northern Virginia, accused Obama of taking advantage of the downtrodden while shopping for Southside votes.

"It doesn't take a lot of courage to go to Martinsville and talk about trade. . . . What would be courageous is to come to Fairfax County, where you have 362 foreign-owned companies and tens of thousands of employees with foreign-owned firms, and take the same kind of stand up here," Davis said. "It's straight-out pandering."

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