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Throngs Greet GOP Ticket in N.Va.

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The Republican presidential ticket holds its largest campaign rally ever at Van Dyck Park in Fairfax. The Post's Michael D. Shear reports. Video by Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.com

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By Tim Craig and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 11, 2008

Republican presidential nominee John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, took their bid for the White House to Northern Virginia yesterday, rallying thousands of supporters by vowing to shake up Washington and saying they will fight for votes in the increasingly Democratic region.

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The appearance at Van Dyck Park in Fairfax City marked the Arizona senator's first campaign stop in the state since the Feb. 12 primary, and served as one of Palin's first public events in front of the suburban voters who could determine the race in Virginia and several other battleground states.

Throngs of GOP supporters from across the Washington region turned the park into a sea of red, wearing T-shirts to symbolize their belief that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) won't turn Virginia blue this year.

The McCain campaign and Fairfax City police estimate that 23,000 people crammed into the park, which, if accurate, would make yesterday's rally McCain's largest in the campaign, his aides said.

The rally, coupled with a barrage of television ads in the Northern Virginia market, shows the strategic importance of Fairfax and the region if the candidate is to win Virginia. Obama, meanwhile, was campaigning in Norfolk, also a crucial region for taking the state.

Many of the people at the rally said they came to see Palin, reinforcing a growing sense among state Republicans that she has energized the party's conservative base in a way that will make it difficult for Obama to win Virginia.

After McCain and Palin took the stage to the song "Eye of the Tiger," they said they, not Obama, will reform Washington by curtailing wasteful spending, expanding oil drilling and winning the war in Iraq.

Both stressed what they characterized as their history of bucking the GOP establishment. "We will bring about change," McCain said. "Senator Obama has never taken on his own party on any issue. We have taken on the old bulls."

While McCain and Palin were rallying in Fairfax, Obama was pressing ahead with his effort to become the first Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 to win Virginia. Obama appeared at a school in Norfolk to talk about his education proposals: enhance early childhood education, create more Advanced Placement courses and develop assessments and funding to help poorly performing schools, especially in rural and urban areas. He characterized McCain as a politician who opposed early childhood education, the hiring of more teachers and programs to make college more affordable.

"When I was in high school, I didn't push myself very hard," Obama told the students. "At some point, you've got to internalize the idea that nobody should have higher expectations for yourself than yourself."

The dueling events at opposite ends of the state demonstrate just how competitive Virginia has become.

After winning the past two governor's races and the 2006 Senate race, Virginia Democrats are determined to keep their streak alive. If Obama can claim Virginia's 13 electoral votes, Democrats believe he would be well-positioned to win the 270 he needs to take the White House. A CNN/Time poll released yesterday showed a tight race in Virginia; McCain held a lead of four percentage points.

Emotion is growing among supporters of both candidates. As McCain backers lined up to get into the rally, about 150 Obama supporters stood near the entrance to the park chanting, "Bush, McCain, more of the same" and "Eight is enough," referring to President Bush's two terms in office. McCain supporters responded with taunts of their own, including "zero," "losers," "baby killers" and "No-Bama."

The battle over social issues is one reason Democrats are optimistic that Obama will perform well in Fairfax, where voters have increasingly shown resistance to candidates who stake out conservative views on such issues as abortion.

Fairfax was a Republican stronghold just two decades ago. But in 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) became the first Democratic presidential nominee in 40 years to win the county. In 2005 and 2006, about 60 percent of Fairfax voters supported Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) in their races. And last year, Democrats picked up two state Senate seats in Fairfax, which resulted in the party's taking control of the chamber.

But McCain's campaign, on the advice of retiring U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and other Northern Virginia Republicans, has embraced a strategy of fighting for votes in Fairfax. Convinced that his maverick reputation and his biography will resonate with Northern Virginia's large bloc of independents, McCain began airing television ads in the expensive Washington media market two months ago, weeks before he bought airtime in markets downstate.

"It's where one-third of the voters live, and we need to do better up here," said Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, a co-chairman of McCain's state campaign and the likely GOP nominee for governor next year. "We've got to get better than 40 percent of the vote in Fairfax County. And if we can, the Democrats can't win" Virginia.

Virginia Democrats say they remain optimistic that McCain and Palin will fail to get much traction in Northern Virginia and that Democrats will conduct a far superior get-out-the-vote effort.

"McCain's too conservative," said George Burke, chairman of the 11th District Democratic Committee, who said he's never seen Virginia Democrats more energized. "I think he got a bounce from the convention for trying to be a maverick, but it won't last."

But the McCain supporters at the rally say the selection of Palin as his running mate has transformed the Virginia GOP overnight, infusing it with thousands of new volunteers.

"I would not have been here today if Palin was not on the ticket," said Camille Farow of Oakton as she was carrying a half-dozen McCain-Palin lawn signs to her car. "I am going to work hard. I feel the Republicans are now really going to bring change to Washington."

Staff writer Jerry Markon contributed to this report. For more on the rally, go tohttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/virginiapolitics.


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