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Virginians Fasten Seat Belts as Obama, McCain Dig In

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008

RICHMOND

Afew months ago, many Republicans were predicting that Virginia's status as a battleground state in the presidential election would be a summer sensation that would quickly fade after Labor Day.

Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) would pull his resources from the state after realizing it would, once again, be reliably red on Election Day.

Privately, some Democrats agreed, pointing to the decision by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) four years ago to abandon Virginia after his state poll numbers failed to move following his party's nominating convention.

But Labor Day has come and gone. And, if anything, the battle over Virginia's 13 electoral votes is getting hotter. Obama and GOP presidential nominee John McCain, the Arizona senator, are spending time and money in Virginia in ways the commonwealth hasn't seen in a generation.

As both candidates prepare for the final two months leading up to the Nov. 4 election, residents should prepare for a campaign that could resemble some of the state's fiercest contests for governor or U.S. senator.

A lot can still change, but it's looking increasingly likely that the presidential contest in Virginia could soon rival some of Virginia's great modern campaigns, including the 2006 race between Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) and former senator George Allen and the 1994 contest between Republican Oliver North and former senator Charles Robb (D).

Many Republicans and Democrats say McCain is favored to win Virginia, which last voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in 1964. But few doubt that winning Virginia has become a top priority for Obama, adding an element of uncertainty to the race.

Obama has been making a strong push for Virginia since midsummer, when he began launching TV ads statewide and started opening 41 offices across the state.

Obama, backed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and U.S. Senate candidate Mark R. Warner (D), also made several visits to the state before the Democratic National Convention. The visits have continued since the convention.

He also has amassed thousands of volunteers in Virginia, and on any given day his Web site lists dozens of voter registration, canvassing or get-out-the vote activities.

McCain has been slower to engage in Virginia. But that is starting to change.

Shortly before the GOP convention, McCain began airing TV ads on broadcast stations statewide, reversing his earlier decision only to advertise in the Washington media market, where his ads would be seen by political journalists and pundits.

And although he has been to Richmond and Northern Virginia for fundraisers, McCain was scheduled to make his first official campaign stop in the state yesterday with a rally in Fairfax City.

His advisers say he'll be back, and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is expected to appear next week in Virginia Beach.

Not wanting to be overshadowed by McCain, Obama's campaign on Tuesday announced that he, too, would be campaigning in Virginia yesterday.

Obama scheduled an event at a school in Norfolk to discuss his educational policy. Obama's visit to Norfolk followed a stop Tuesday in Southwest Virginia. This week marks the second time in a month that Obama has spent two consecutive days in Virginia.

The candidates' visits and ads are only part of the story. Out of public view, both campaigns are fighting for any attention they can get in the local media through surrogates and daily events.

On Monday, former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore and Del. Christopher B. Saxman (R-Staunton), co-chairs of McCain's Virginia campaign, held a conference call with Virginia reporters to discuss why they don't think Obama can win the state.

On Tuesday, U.S. senators Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) held a news conference in Arlington County to outline their views on why McCain and Palin are too conservative for voters in Northern Virginia.

The Obama campaign announced the noon news conference at 7 a.m., a possible sign that it was organized at the last minute.

Three hours later -- in an e-mail marked urgent -- the McCain campaign announced it was having a conference call for Virginia reporters that would feature U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R). Bolling and Warner talked about why they think Virginia voters will reject Obama on Nov. 4.

The presidential election is overshadowing the U.S. Senate race between Warner and his Republican opponent, former governor James S. Gilmore III, as well as the congressional races. After he picked up the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police on Monday, Warner spent a few minutes taking questions from reporters.

Three out of four questions were about the presidential race.

All the attention on Virginia is resulting in increasing acrimony between partisans, as evidenced by the uproar this week over whether McCain should be allowed to hold a rally at Fairfax High School.

After it was reported that the rally would be in violation of school policies prohibiting political events during school hours, dozens of angry parents phoned local, state and school officials. Some students and teachers at the Fairfax school began talking of walking out of class in protest.

All this, and it's only mid-September.

If the polls show a close race heading into next month, Virginia voters should get ready for a very bumpy ride.

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