McCain Forced to Fight for Virginia
Traditionally Red State Finds GOP Struggling to Match Obama Operation

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.

"Until Sarah Palin was nominated, there was absolutely no enthusiasm for McCain's candidacy," said Farris, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1993. "People were resigned to vote for him, but that was it. There was no reaching out. No one asked us to do anything. In the last few weeks, people have asked us. So we're going to do it."

Obama's campaign has staged huge voter-registration drives that have gone unmatched by McCain, according to local registrars, who say they are swamped by Obama's efforts.

In Fairfax alone, election officials processed about 1,000 applications per day before the deadline this month, General Registrar Rokey W. Suleman II said. A total of 61,000 registrants signed up in the county this year.

Although voters do not register by party in Virginia, Suleman said the vast majority of the new registrants probably are Obama supporters because virtually all the applications have come from drives led by groups backing the candidate. Suleman said he has seen no registration drives by the McCain campaign.

McCain has 20 "victory centers" in the state, but that is about a third of the campaign offices his rival has. Obama's 3,000 volunteers knocked on 262,000 doors on a recent weekend -- a huge number compared with the 300,000 doors that Democrats knocked on during the state's 2005 gubernatorial campaign.

By comparison, McCain's volunteers personally contacted 130,000 voters with a combination of phone calls and door-knocking during a recent week, a senior campaign strategist said.

Evidence that McCain's efforts are trailing is especially stark across voter-rich Northern Virginia. On an early October weekend, Obama's 16 offices buzzed, while McCain's five were nearly deserted.

In West Springfield, Republican volunteer Fred Tsai sat alone at the front counter of an isolated McCain campaign office. Another volunteer could be heard making phone calls in a back room, but no one else appeared during a 15-minute period on a Saturday morning. "We just opened up this past week," Tsai said.

Down the road, at least 200 volunteers overflowed out of a storefront Obama operation in southern Fairfax as they waited for instructions on going door to door. Many had driven down from the District and Maryland; many others had found the location through the Obama campaign Web site.

Similarly, in Gainesville in western Prince William, two young McCain volunteers sat alone by the phones in a cavernous new campaign office. But in Dumfries, Obama volunteers and paid staff fielded a steady stream of eager supporters wanting to help.

At the McCain office in Sterling on a recent Sunday afternoon, three people made calls at a bank of about 20 phones. "We may not have as many offices as Obama," said Kevin Brown, 18, one of the three. "But we've got a lot of spirit."

Trey Walker, McCain's top operative for the mid-Atlantic region, described those examples as the "normal ebb and flow" of a phone-bank operation.

"We're very happy with where we are organizationally," he said, calling McCain's efforts larger than any recent statewide campaign. "Our daily goal is to knock on thousands of doors a day across the commonwealth. We continue to exceed that."

The McCain campaign says that Virginia is its third-best state when it comes to meeting its goals for phone-calling and door-knocking. The number of voters volunteers contacted in a single week -- 130,000 -- exceeded all but one of McCain's battleground operations, a senior campaign strategist said.

And the volunteers on the campaign's front lines for McCain insist that they are succeeding, pointing to what they call "collateral," the signs and bumper stickers that used to languish on the shelves.

In Virginia Beach, Ken Golden said the 1,500 McCain yard signs he had in late September are gone. "He makes the announcement of Sarah Palin and, my God, the stuff is leaping out of the headquarters and the victory center."

At the Mecklenburg County Republican committee meeting in September, McCain chairman Tucker Watkins marveled at the 40 people who showed up to volunteer. A year ago, he said, six people attended the regular meeting.

Herbert H. Bateman Jr., a Republican on the Newport News City Council whose late father was a congressman, conceded that Democrats are working harder than ever in his community. But he said the mood feels no different from that of past years on the Republican side.

"I've received phone calls, I've seen signs in yards, and I've seen plenty of advertising by McCain-Palin," Bateman said. "I haven't seen them give quarter to anyone."

But some of Virginia's longtime operatives said they do not think McCain's turnout operation is strong enough. They say his campaign is being run by young people who have little experience with statewide campaigns in the Old Dominion. The state director for McCain's campaign was a junior staff member on Jerry Kilgore's gubernatorial campaign in 2005, tracking Democrat Timothy M. Kaine around the state with a camera.

A senior Virginia Republican called the McCain operations in the two most populous areas of the state -- Northern Virginia and Tidewater -- "lackluster" and said it makes him nervous. He said the veterans of past campaign have vanished.

"They're not there. They've not been active. They've not been encouraged to be part of the campaign," said the Republican, who is supporting McCain and does not want to be identified as critical of the effort.

Asked about the campaign's lack of longtime Virginia operatives, a top McCain strategist noted the string of losing Republican campaigns in the state recently, including Kilgore in 2005 and U.S. Sen. George Allen in 2006.

"It's probably a very positive thing in Virginia to have some new blood," the strategist said.

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