Virginia's Democrats pushed their party toward John F. Kerry in February by handing him a southern victory in the presidential primaries. Now, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and his party are battling history, the polls and a state Republican Party determined to keep Kerry from defeating President Bush on Tuesday.
On Friday, Warner had predicted a "surprise" on Election Day, as he sought to provide hope to activists canvassing the state this weekend.
Yesterday, Democrats gathered in Arlington to rally supporters in their strongest region of the state.
"The sky is gray, but the state is blue!" Mike Brown, campaign manager for Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D), yelled to about 50 people who rallied in a soggy Arlington park yesterday before fanning out to neighborhoods and reminding people to vote.
Moran, who is fighting for an eighth term, said that the demographics of the state have changed and that the tens of thousands of new Virginians are "overwhelmingly Democrats. Now you see a very different state."
Republicans rallied in Springfield, where their leaders fired up a crowd of more than 200 people, telling them that Kerry, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, could never understand "the real Virginia."
GOP leaders predicted that Bush would extend the unbroken string of Republican presidential victories in Virginia that followed Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson's win in 1964.
A poll by the Mason-Dixon organization showed a 50-44 lead for Bush in Virginia. The poll, conducted Oct. 22 to 25 , has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) prompted loud cheers and laughter when he reminded the crowd of Warner's prediction. "That's not going to happen, folks," he said to loud cheers and laughs. "As we say in southwest Virginia: That dog won't hunt."
Susan Etter, 62, who has been politically active for decades, and met her husband at a Young Republicans event, was standing in the mist with her poodle, Mr. Yellow.
"I wouldn't feel secure militarily without Bush," said Etter, an Arlington resident. "Kerry went to Vietnam and then came back and changed his mind; that's the most serious thing, to me."
Republicans are counting on a Bush victory to end a string of disappointments that began with Warner's victory in 2001 and continued with several scandals that led to the ouster of the party's executive director, its chairman and the speaker of the House of Delegates.
A win Tuesday could also help unite a party deeply divided by Warner's successful push for a $1.5 billion tax increase this year.
Democrats say a Kerry victory would cement their belief that Virginia has changed fundamentally, from a reliably Republican state to one that is regularly competitive. That would energize the party going into 2005, when Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Kilgore compete to be governor.
The events of this year "made all the traditional prisms through which we looked at Virginia politics seem to be broken, at least temporarily," said Robert D. Holsworth, a professor of politics at Virginia Commonwealth University. The question now, he said, is whether 2004 will turn out to have been a harbinger or "an aberrant year."
In February, an already surging Kerry won about half of all primary votes in Virginia and beat the other candidates in every region in the state. Three days earlier, Warner had endorsed Kerry during a cold, early morning event in front of the governor's mansion.
Warner called Kerry the right candidate to bring "fiscal sanity to our nation's capital."
Kerry's campaign made a surprise play for the state's 13 electoral votes, sending Kerry and vice presidential nominee John Edwards to Virginia several times. In July, Warner led his party to the national convention in Boston.
Kerry's political advisers said at the time that they believed their candidate could pull an upset in Virginia by appealing to veterans, residents of economically hard-hit rural areas and increasingly Democratic Northern Virginia. They invested almost $1 million in television advertisements and built up a campaign staff of 30 people. One poll showed Kerry within 2 points of Bush.
"The Democrats decided, at least for a few months, to really contest Virginia," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Eventually, mainly because of the growth in Northern Virginia, the state will be more competitive presidentially."
Kerry's play for the state didn't last long, however.
For several weeks, television ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacked Kerry's service in Vietnam. The ads, produced by political operatives in Virginia and starring veterans from Richmond, struck right at Kerry's support among veterans in the state.
By the time Kilgore returned from leading the state's Republicans to the GOP convention in New York, the polling gap had widened in Virginia. Early this month, Kerry pulled out most of his staff.
Ken Hutcheson, director of Bush's campaign in Virginia, called the Republican convention the "obvious turning point in the campaign, nationally and here in Virginia. From the Labor Day sprint on, it's been nonstop, and we've had the momentum."
Democratic volunteers are conceding nothing. Peggy Cohen, 63, and Louisa Reynolds, 65, friends and Democrats who attended yesterday's rally in Arlington, said they came to volunteer for the first time in their lives.
"It matters," said Cohen, who does administrative work at George Washington University.
"A lot," added Reynolds, who works at an accrediting agency. "We may not be a swing state, but we have to do the best we can."
Republicans also say they are confident of maintaining their dominance in Congress, where the GOP holds eight of the state's 11 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Both of the state's U.S. senators, who are not up for reelection this year, are Republicans.
But the party is fighting hard in Virginia's 2nd District, where Rep. Edward L. Schrock announced he would not seek reelection after a gay activist claimed on his Web site that Schrock had solicited gay sex. Schrock's departure sparked an intense fight for the seat by Del. Thelma Drake (R-Norfolk) and Democrat David B. Ashe, a lawyer and former U.S. Marine.
Ashe's background, in a district where many voters are active or retired members of the military, has prompted both national parties to pour money into the race during the past two weeks.
The two parties have also been battling hard in Northern Virginia for the seat held by Moran, who has been dogged by questions about his character.
In June, Moran defeated a Democratic primary challenger. This fall, his Republican challenger, Lisa Marie Cheney, has made Moran's character a centerpiece of her campaign.
"It's been a very challenging year for Jim Moran," said Mary K. "Mame" Reiley, his former campaign manager. "Jim left himself open. He's made his share of mistakes, but he's learned from them."