McCain Forced to Fight for Virginia

By Michael D. Shear and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 17, 2008

Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain will take different messages to different audiences in different parts of Virginia over the next two days, but they will have the same goal in mind: to urge their supporters to spend the final stretch of the campaign fighting for every vote they can find.

Obama will hold a rally today in Roanoke, a conservative part of the state where he hopes to keep the race relatively close. McCain will travel tomorrow to Prince William County, where he aims to cut into Obama's Northern Virginia base.

In his quest to win the Old Dominion, Obama is trying to end 44 years of Republican dominance and become the first Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson to carry the state. McCain's challenge is more immediate, as he has less than three weeks to reverse polls that show a trend against him.

By every organizational measure, Obama's campaign appears to have the advantage -- it has nearly three times as many offices, has contacted tens of thousands more potential supporters, and has helped register nearly half a million new voters this year, most of whom state officials believe favor the Democrat.

But Virginia remains a state with strong conservative tendencies, and it is unclear whether a majority will pull the lever for a Democrat whom McCain has derided as having "the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate." A key to a McCain comeback will be whether Republicans have built a strong enough get-out-the-vote operation in a state where none has ever been needed, something many party leaders question.

"People have no idea how hard you have to work to shake the tree for every last vote," said Rob Catron, a longtime political consultant who has managed GOP campaigns in the Hampton Roads area for years. Republicans "still think, somehow, that Virginia is bulletproof when it comes to presidential elections," he said.

Aides say the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate transformed their effort, energizing church communities, home-schooling leaders and social conservatives.

In Southwest Virginia, there are now waiting lists 300 deep for signs that used to sit on shelves. Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation, is handing out conservative voter guides to churches she had never heard of before. And home-schooling champion Michael P. Farris's "Generation Joshua" is organizing teams of teenage McCain door-knockers in parts of Northern Virginia.

McCain's staff members also say they have recruited volunteers in 1,500 of the state's precincts, assembled one of their best phone and door-knocking operations, and used the latest technology to quickly update voter lists.

The Republican National Committee has also begun making automated phone calls in Virginia and in other battleground states that talk about Obama's connections to "terrorists," a reference to the Vietnam War-era radical William Ayers. And the Republican Party of Virginia has circulated a mailer bearing a dark-skinned face and the words "America must look evil in the eye and never flinch."

Still, Republicans are not bullish about their statewide effort, especially compared with an Obama operation that got in gear before the state's February primary.

The GOP "doesn't even know where the Republicans live" in Fairfax County, bemoaned longtime county Supervisor Michael R. Frey, expressing dismay at what he described as his party's lack of organization, unity and excitement.

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