Battling on the Other Side's Turf

A small town in Southern Virginia is the unlikely home to one of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's campaign offices.
By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008

CHASE CITY, Va. Highway 47 winds past Elke's Dog Resort, past the big yard full of old tires and shiny hubcaps, and the barren, barbed-wired fields with horses in the distance. Like many small towns in rural America, this one has a Main Street, which you'll come to soon enough, and right there next to the Municipal Building is the first presidential campaign office that longtime residents can remember seeing.

Sen. Barack Obama's field office here was once a dress shop but is now the hub for a four-county voter turnout operation in Southside Virginia, where Democrats typically get clobbered. The roster of Democratic politicians who have been whipped in this region is impressive. Take Mecklenburg County, where Chase City is located: Jim Webb was beaten here by 19 points in 2006, Tim Kaine by 12 points in 2005, John Kerry by 16 points in 2004, Al Gore by 16 points in 2000. Even Mark Warner, the most successful Democrat of note in Southside Virginia, lost in Mecklenburg County en route to winning the governorship in 2001.

That Obama would open an office here, one of at least 49 across the state, is as much a curiosity as it is a symbol of the campaign's efforts to stretch the electoral map well beyond traditional Democratic territory. It is a strategy that is testing the relationship between politics and community, especially in small towns like Chase City, where the canvassers are local volunteers who often eat, pray and shop with those whose votes they are soliciting.

Gayle Clancy, who has lived here for 22 years and owns the Main Street Cafe, views the Obama office as a marvel, even though she never votes, will not vote next week, and considers politics a dirty business "all the way down to town politics." Still. "This is the first time I remember seeing a presidential campaign office since I've been living here. Absolutely. I was very, very surprised. I was like, 'Wow!' They're there until 10 o'clock at night sometimes."

Recently, the Obama campaign office had a bomb scare -- false alarm -- and the mere fact of it became a happening. A package received in the mail contained a smudged return address from Chevy Chase, Md., and because volunteers weren't expecting the parcel -- and had been alerted by the campaign hierarchy to report suspicious mailings -- local police were called. This set in motion a five-hour chain of events that included evacuating the office and an adjacent building, yellow-taping the block, calling in the Virginia State Police, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department and the city's volunteer fire department and rescue squad, and notifying federal authorities.

"They even sent in the little robot," said Clancy. She was referring to the state's bomb-detecting robot, whose presence elicited oohs and ahhs from the gathered crowd. In the end, all the commotion was over a padded manila envelope containing Obama buttons and bumper stickers donated by a Montgomery County couple.

Volunteers working long hours to mine votes in Southside Virginia -- the region east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and south of the James River -- have had bigger problems than false bomb scares. Barry Carter, a small-business owner and chairman of the Occoneechee tribe in Virginia, bought 200 signs through the Democratic Party and put them up in the Clarksville area of Mecklenburg. He soon discovered that more than 150 of them had disappeared, and a handful more were slashed, he said. The peculiar thing, Carter noted, was that the Obama signs had been placed next to those of Democratic congressional candidate Tom Perriello, and his signs were untouched. "Both are Democrats. They're running on similar issues," Carter said of Obama and Perriello. "In our mind, it's a racial issue."

Carter reported the signs as stolen to the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department. "Every campaign, we have problems with signs somewhere," said Maj. James Snead, the chief deputy sheriff, who said patrols had been beefed up in the neighborhoods where the Obama signs had disappeared.

While a recent Washington Post poll had Obama with an eight-point lead in the state, the difficulties in Southside Virginia cannot be underestimated. Democrats have long struggled in rural America. According to polling data, Obama trails Sen. John McCain among rural voters both nationally and in Virginia, pulling 40 percent in the nation and 43 percent in the state. Those percentages roughly match Sen. John F. Kerry's performance in 2004.

The 5th Congressional District contains the heart of Southside, landscape that is both flat and hilly and steeped in history. This is where Robert E. Lee surrendered and Harry Byrd resisted school integration, where textile mills died and tobacco production is mostly a romantic memory. The district's politics are conservative, as embodied by six-term congressman Virgil Goode. Elected as a Democrat in 1996 -- perhaps the most conservative House Democrat in the nation -- he soon found political life too uncomfortable under his own party's banner and ran for reelection in 2000 as an independent. He switched parties in 2002, and has been running successfully as a Republican ever since.

McCain has but 21 offices in the state, and no heavy presence in Southside, but he has Goode and George Allen and Jerry Kilgore, all Republicans who have done well here. "We think we're going to do very well in all of Southside," said McCain spokeswoman Gail Gitcho. "They're always going to have more offices than us, more staff than us, more money than us. But we have our battle-tested staff and volunteers who know how to win Virginia."

Not many political observers are betting on Obama in Southside -- even Obama supporters are uncertain. But campaign spokesman Clark Stevens said making the effort is the point. "It's important for us to have a presence in as many communities as we can. We are out in areas that may be traditionally more Republican, but we are interested in connecting with as many voters as possible. Offices are about giving members of the community the tools they need and the information they need to make a decision on November 4th."

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