By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
VIRGINIA BEACH, Oct. 13 -- Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, rallied thousands of enthusiastic supporters Monday in Hampton Roads, an increasingly crucial region that had once been considered safe territory for the Republican presidential ticket but is now up for grabs.
McCain (Ariz.) came to the heavily populated and racially diverse area to speak about the global economic crisis, U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his increasingly uphill battle to the presidency.
"Let me give you the state of the race today and some straight talk,'' McCain said. "We have 22 days to go. We're six points down. The national media has written us off. But they forgot to let you decide."
Monday's visit, three weeks before the Nov. 4 election, shows that the McCain campaign recognizes the area's importance to winning Virginia's 13 electoral votes. It also demonstrates that the region, like the state as a whole, can no longer be considered a Republican stronghold.
The area, home to the world's largest naval base, will be one of the state's most competitive in the presidential race. A Washington Post-ABC News poll late last month showed that 50 percent of likely voters in Hampton Roads favor the Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), and 45 percent back McCain.
"It's going to come right down to the wire here, and it's pretty clear that the road to victory in 2008 is going to run right through the Hampton Roads," Palin said.
Democrats expect Obama to win big in vote-rich Northern Virginia, while Republicans expect McCain to win the Shenandoah Valley and rural Southside and southwestern Virginia. That means winning the state could come down to Hampton Roads.
The region is home to core constituencies for both parties. It is composed of mid-size cities and sprawling suburbs where economic, military and social issues all come into play.
McCain, a Navy veteran who was once based at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, expects support from the half-million people connected with the military as well as the large evangelical population. Obama, the first black presidential nominee on a major party ticket, expects support from the state's largest African American population and thousands of college students.
"It's ground zero. It comes down to Hampton Roads," said Del. John A. Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake), who was working as a volunteer at the rally. "You can't look at Hampton Roads and say, 'This is a Republican area and that is a Democratic area,' because it really is a mix."
The Virginia Beach Convention Center was filled with thousands of supporters wearing red shirts, sweaters, scarves and hats to symbolize their desire to prevent a Democrat from carrying the state for the first time in more than four decades.
The McCain campaign estimated the crowd at 25,000 people, but the local police and fire marshal put it closer to 12,000.
Supporters waved "Country First" signs and handmade posters with the words "I Have 4 Hockey Moms and 1 Joe Six Pack for McCain-Palin" and "Trig for First Baby," referring to Palin's youngest son. Palin, by far, received the most cheers. "Sar-ah!" they chanted. "Sar-ah!"
Hampton Roads, a sprawling area of 1.6 million people in 17 localities, includes the state's second-largest metropolitan area and largest city. Virginia's southeastern corner has been a swing area in recent years, veering back and forth between Republicans and Democrats.
In 2000, George W. Bush (R) and Al Gore (D) split Hampton Roads, but in 2004, Bush beat John F. Kerry (D). Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) won the region in 2005, while former senator George Allen (R) won there but lost the statewide election in 2006. Last year, Democrats won seats previously held by Republicans in the House of Delegates and Senate.
For weeks, GOP activists in Hampton Roads have been clamoring for McCain or Palin to visit to get rank-and-file supporters enthusiastic about the campaign.
Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), who spoke at the rally, said he thinks McCain will win Hampton Roads, but he added that it was important for McCain to come to the area anyway to shore up the base.
"You have to energize your team,'' said McDonnell, who was wearing a red tie. "You certainly don't want to take any part of the state for granted."
It was McCain's second trip to the battleground state since the Feb. 12 primary. Later Monday, Palin attended a rally of about 25,000 at the Richmond International Raceway.
Obama has been to Virginia six times since securing the Democratic presidential nomination. His running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, and their wives have been to the state a total of eight times. Five of the 14 trips were to Hampton Roads.
No Democratic presidential candidate has carried Virginia since 1964, but recent polls show Obama and McCain locked in an extremely competitive race in Virginia. The Post-ABC News poll late last month indicated that Virginia's likely voters are divided 49 percent for Obama and 46 percent for McCain.
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, said McCain might be able to win the state if he can stop the "slide in Hampton Roads."
In response to McCain's visit, Obama's campaign held news conferences in Virginia Beach and Richmond, where Virginia veterans spoke of concerns about McCain.
Del. Joseph F. Bouchard (D-Virginia Beach), who spent almost three decades in the Navy, said demographic changes combined with discontent over Bush's veterans benefits policies have soured residents on McCain.
"They feel the Bush administration has let them down,'' he said. "McCain has been in lockstep with Bush."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.