Sen. John F. Kerry has decided to begin campaigning in Virginia, a state that has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only once in the past half-century.
Television ads, part of a 19-state, $17 million media campaign, will begin airing Wednesday on cable in Northern Virginia and on network stations in Richmond, Roanoke and Norfolk, his campaign advisers announced Friday.
Kerry is also scheduled to visit the state July 16 for a barbecue fundraiser that Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) will host at a Northern Virginia hotel. It will target both wealthy donors and grass-roots activists, said Mary A. "Mame" Reiley, director of Warner's political action committee.
"Virginia is prime territory for John Kerry," Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, said in a conference call with reporters Friday. "This is a very particular race where there are very real questions about the president's leadership. John Kerry has a profile that is in sync with voters in Virginia."
Nationally, new Kerry ads will target Hispanics in several states while others are designed to help mobilize black voters. In Virginia, campaign officials said the television spots will be biographical in nature and are part of a strategy that assumes Kerry can win Virginia's 13 electoral votes.
But that assertion challenges conventional political wisdom, which paints Virginia as a state unlikely to be won by any Democrat in a presidential campaign.
State Republicans and Bush campaign officials said they remain confident that the Massachusetts senator will lose to Bush in Virginia on Nov. 2. Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel said the campaign has "announced no plans" to counter Kerry with ads in Virginia.
"We don't take any vote for granted throughout the country," he said. "I would just say we are confident."
Some longtime observers of politics in the Old Dominion say the Bush team should not be worried. Bush defeated Al Gore by 8 percentage points in Virginia in 2000, even as much of the country was split down the middle. Virginia voters have chosen Republican candidates in every election since 1952, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Even in 1976, said U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), when Jimmy Carter swept all the other southern states, Gerald Ford carried Virginia. Davis called a Kerry campaign "a non-starter" in Virginia.
"I don't see anything here that says this is money well spent," Davis said. "There are pockets for Kerry in some of the urban areas, college towns, maybe where they've lost a factory or two. But I don't think it's in play presidentially this year."
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, has been tracking voter preferences in Virginia since 1969. He said Kerry's decision to spend money campaigning in Virginia is "pointless."
He noted that although Northern Virginia has become more receptive to a Democratic message, the state's Tidewater area and some of the state's central cities have become more solidly conservative. "I know this state like the back of my hand," Sabato said. "I disagree strongly that Virginia is competitive."
But Kerry's campaign advisers and some other Democrats say history is not the only guide in Virginia and similar states that are growing and changing.
Told of Sabato's comments, Warner said, "the good professor and I respectfully disagree" on the issue. Warner said moderate voters in Northern Virginia, out-of-work factory employees in Southside communities and military veterans are potential Kerry supporters.
"Virginia will be a competitive state this fall," he said. The national Democratic Party, he added, has historically failed to appeal to conservative Democrats in the South who disagreed with the party on cultural issues.
Reiley said the governor's win in 2001 should serve as an object lesson to Kerry that a Democrat can win with the right blend of message and money.
"People forget what a strong military state Virginia is," she said. "A war hero with [Kerry's Navy] war record is going to appeal to the independent voter."
President Bill Clinton, at one time a southern governor, weighed running an aggressive 1996 reelection campaign in Virginia, according to Democrats familiar with the state.
In the end, the Clinton campaign skipped over the commonwealth to campaign elsewhere. But Doug Sosnik, Clinton's political director at the time, said he believes that strategists must not get mired in old ways of thinking about the electoral map.
"You see it around the country, in high-growth states like Virginia, states are changing and the demographics are changing. At some point, the conventional wisdom has to change as well," Sosnik said.
The Kerry campaign is hoping that time is now.
Tad Devine, Kerry's senior media strategist, told reporters that internal polling and weeks of studying the demographics in Virginia have convinced Democrats they can win the state in November.
"I can understand how people have looked at Virginia historically and have come to a conclusion that, based on the past, something can't happen in the future," Devine said. "We've decided that conclusion is mistaken."