In Political Swing State, County Leads Swinging

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008

On Battle Street in Manassas, a quiet war is being waged. In front of one house sits an Obama-Biden sign. Next door, one for McCain-Palin. Back and forth they go, up and down the block.

Even in a battleground state -- as Virginia has been labeled this year -- it is uncommon to find a county, much less a single street, that is politically so closely divided. But in recent years, through demographic shifts, political and economic trends and intense population growth, the Prince William County area, once a Republican stronghold, has gone from reliably red to purple. That has made it a prime target for the two major presidential campaigns as they have vied for supremacy in the commonwealth in hopes of capturing its 13 electoral votes Tuesday.

As a result, the county has had personal visits by both major presidential candidates this year, as well as an all-out assault of campaigning via surrogates, TV ads and signs. To some observers and local leaders, the increased attention is great for the county: It guarantees increased name recognition for Prince William outside the area and attention to important county issues such as home foreclosures, and encourages residents to become more civic-minded.

"I think it's fantastic," said Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles), who added that although he is supporting Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), it was good for Prince William to have Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) appear in the county as well.

"It's difficult to argue that having a national candidate come to Prince William County, speak here, get a chance to meet some people and bring a little name ID to the county [is not] a positive thing," Nohe said.

Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) said that the major presence of the two campaigns has the potential to keep people active in politics who haven't been engaged in the past and that the experience of helping with a campaign could even inspire some residents to run for office down the road.

"That's always one of the advantages of people getting involved in these elections," Jenkins said. "You identify new talent."

For Steve Nelson, chairman of the Prince William County Greater Manassas Chamber of Commerce, one of the more valuable byproducts of the campaign has been face time with candidates. Just as Obama and McCain are battling for the county, so too are the down-ticket candidates, such as Republican James S. Gilmore III and Democrat Mark R. Warner, who are running for U.S. Senate and have both met with Nelson's chamber.

"We love the attention," Nelson said. "We think it's well deserved."

But just because the candidates are speaking to the Prince William community doesn't mean they are discussing the things it cares about. Dexter Fox, chairman of Unity in the Community, a Manassas group that promotes cross-cultural understanding, was surprised he didn't hear more about immigration, an issue that, even before the campaign, thrust Prince William into the national spotlight.

"Even though they are here," Fox said of the candidates, they have not "said one word about immigration. . . . I would love to have heard something here. I think it was a real sidestep on the issue."

Beyond mere disappointments, there are darker elements of being a battleground county in a battleground state: divides among neighbors, acts of vandalism and theft.

Last weekend, in one of the uglier examples of such political strife, about a dozen houses, six businesses and a church were spray-painted with profane, anti-McCain messages in Gainesville, police said. Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Board of County Supervisors, called the incident "political intimidation."

The event followed a string of thefts of signs of both political parties from yards across the county, which prompted one Manassas woman to use her front lawn to erect the message "REAL PATRIOTS DO NOT STEAL SIGNS."

Such acts are a reaction to the intense campaigning in the county, combined with the fact that many people get news exclusively from media outlets that reinforce their views and shut out the opposition, said Robert Holsworth, a political analyst at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"These purple counties," Holsworth said, "they look like they're turning black and blue in some ways."

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