Obama, Biden Turn Attention To Outer Suburbs in Virginia

By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), took their campaign to fast-growing outer suburbs in Virginia yesterday as they appealed for support from the young families and long-distance commuters who they believe could be key to winning the state's 13 electoral votes.

Police said about 12,000 people crammed Ball Circle, the campus quad at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, and waited in a deluge for the candidates to arrive, while 14,000 more waited outside.

When he took the stage during a light rain, Obama stepped up his criticism of Republican nominee John McCain's economic policies and vowed that he and Biden will support renewable energy, health care, education and environmental protection. Obama also criticized McCain's performance during Friday's debate. "We talked about the economy for 40 minutes last night, and not once did Senator McCain talk about the struggles of the middle class," Obama said. He later added, "In 90 minutes, John McCain had a lot to say about me but had nothing to say about you."

In their first joint campaign appearance since the days immediately after last month's Democratic National Convention, Biden and Obama chose their location carefully: a small town surrounded by counties that have seen their populations nearly double since 1990.

The rally is the latest sign that the Democratic ticket views the traditionally Republican outer suburbs, as well as Hampton Roads, as battlegrounds in the race against McCain.

Separating Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia from conservative rural areas, the ring of counties that stretch from Loudoun southeast to the Rappahannock River are filled with tens of thousands of independent-minded voters who were drawn to the area by relatively affordable housing, good schools and bigger plots of land.

In past presidential elections, these voters joined with longtime residents to support the GOP, including favoring President Bush by nearly 2 to 1 in 2000 and 2004. But as those counties continue to grow and diversify, Democrats say they think that more and more residents are open to backing Obama and Senate candidate Mark R. Warner (D) this year.

Democratic strategists also say the region is loaded with thousands of Democratic-leaning first-time voters who are registering now.

Obama and Warner are building off the suburban strategy that Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) used in his 2005 campaign. Now, Virginia Democrats are continuing to push their efforts farther south and west into Stafford, Spotsylvania, Culpeper and Fauquier counties.

"We decided to expand and reach out to additional fast-growing communities," said Mike Henry, an architect of Kaine's victory who manages Warner's campaign. "Although rural and urban are also important, more and more, suburban and fast-growing areas have more of a say in who is going to be elected statewide."

Political analysts say McCain probably will not be able to carry Virginia, which last voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in 1964, if Obama keeps GOP margins in check in the outer suburbs.

As they were in Kaine's race, Loudoun and Prince William are the two biggest prizes. If Obama can rack up big margins in Washington's inner suburbs and urban areas downstate, political analysts say he will need only a tie or narrow victory in Prince William and Loudoun to win the state.

In June, a few days after the Democratic primaries ended, Obama kicked off his general election campaign with a large rally at Nissan Pavilion in Prince William County. Since early September, Biden has made three visits to Loudoun or Prince William, including two in one week, plus yesterday's rally.

Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, described Northern Virginia's exurbs as areas where voters are looking for government to offer key services -- well-maintained roads, safe neighborhoods and good schools -- as cheaply as possible. He said the voters are often independents.

Obama, he said, is trying to capitalize on a shift in the state toward Democrats and discontent with Republicans. "It shows someone has paid a lot of attention to Virginia,'' Kidd said of Obama's campaign.

Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, said McCain still has an advantage in the exurbs because voters there lean to the right.

But Stewart is nervous about the Obama campaign's repeated visits to the region.

McCain "should know that he can't take Prince William and Loudoun for granted," said Stewart, who added that he has been "begging" the Republican nominee to visit Prince William.

Gail Gitcho, a McCain spokeswoman in Virginia, declined to comment on the latest Obama-Biden visit or when McCain or his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, would be returning to Virginia

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