The lawns on Chartered Creek Place are lush and green. There are toys in the driveways and flip-flops tossed casually on front stoops. Some of the houses have been occupied almost forever, by neighborhood standards: six full months.
The new neighbors in this Loudoun County community had a get-to-know-you block party Labor Day weekend on the smooth asphalt of their newly paved road. People brought dishes, introduced their children and chatted about their jobs and about hosting a first-ever Halloween party.
They haven't been talking much about politics.
"Between unpacking, piano, baseball and school, it's not really a high priority," said Beth Elrefai, a mother of three and a Realtor who lives at the end of Chartered Creek Place.
But politicians are talking about them this fall. These newcomers in the fast-growing outer suburbs of Washington represent one of the biggest opportunities and one of the biggest challenges in Virginia's 2005 election campaign.
For the gubernatorial candidates, the opportunity lies in the number of potential new voters. About 111,700 registered voters were in Loudoun in 2001, the year Mark R. Warner (D) was elected governor. Now there are more than 144,400.
To Jerry W. Kilgore and other Republicans, the thousands of new residents moving into these traditionally conservative areas promise lasting electoral power. Kilgore, the former attorney general and public safety secretary, presents himself as tough on crime and illegal immigration and strong on protecting families, things he believes touch the newcomers directly.
Democrat Timothy M. Kaine, the lieutenant governor, said the growth will favor him because the families flooding into these outer suburbs care about education above all else and will decide he has been a better champion for schools. The centerpiece of his education platform is a proposal to provide access to pre-kindergarten education for all Virginia children.
The challenge for both is that they must introduce themselves to communities with little political history, where it's possible to drive for miles without seeing a single campaign sign or bumper sticker.
Interviews with many residents suggested that the candidates face a daunting task in helping newcomers see the connections between daily concerns about congestion, gangs and education and the choices for governor Nov. 8.
Many say roads are too congested and taxes too high, but they have little familiarity with Virginia's political landscape and are hardly eager to get drawn into what they see as campaign-season brawling. There is too much to do in their new communities -- starting clubs, ferrying children to school and soccer -- to take much interest in what they see as a distant and nasty political process.
Among the new arrivals to Chartered Creek Place is Danica Hu, who emigrated from China to another Loudoun development in 1997. A U.S. citizen, Hu could vote this year but said that is unlikely. She has trouble distinguishing between U.S. politicians, she said. Their speeches are written by others, and short ads are confusing. She cannot tell the parties apart.
When Hu turned 18 in China, she said her teacher announced one day that she and her classmates would be allowed to vote for one of two men who wanted to be their local representative. "And you can choose this one," the teacher said, pointing to a picture of one of the two men.
"Isn't it really the same thing here?" Hu asked.
Kaine and Kilgore would respectfully disagree, but they still must make that case to Hu and her new neighbors.
Chartered Creek Place is at the western end of a vast planned community called Lansdowne on the Potomac. The development covers 1,100 acres of unincorporated territory, stretching east of the county seat of Leesburg, north to the Potomac River and south to Route 7.
All but one sliver of houses in Lansdowne is assigned to Precinct 813, a voting district that did not exist four years ago but now ranks among the county's largest, with more than 5,800 registered voters.
In 2001, Republican candidate Mark L. Earley beat Warner in Loudoun by more than 3,400 votes. Warner won the state by almost 97,000 votes, thanks in part to his big margins inside the Capital Beltway. Since then, 57,000 more people have registered to vote in Prince William and Loudoun, two of the nation's fastest-growing suburbs.
If the newcomers to Precinct 813 had lived there in 2001, they would have joined about 5,000 others in casting ballots at the Ashburn firehouse. Since then, there has been an explosion of building in all directions. What once was one precinct has been split into four.
Ask residents in Precinct 813 how they usually vote, and many respond like Elrefai.
"I lean Republican," she said. "I'm just a little more conservative."
But many, again including Elrefai, say they vote for candidates rather than parties. Concerned about the war in Iraq, she voted for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in the last presidential election.
Kaine's campaign finds reason for optimism among the new families: There are on average 1.23 children for each single-family house in Precinct 813. That's higher than average for Loudoun, and Loudoun is higher than elsewhere in Virginia.
"It's sad to see how little teachers are paid," said Jennifer Davis Miller, 28, also a mother of three, also a Realtor and a six-month resident of Chartered Creek Place. "I'm all for anything that goes to the schools."
But with only weeks to go before the election, what Elrefai and Miller and many of their new neighbors had in common was that each had only passing knowledge of either Kaine or Kilgore.
Kaine predicted that he will eat into the Republican edge in the area west of the Capital Beltway, making it easier for him to win statewide. Yet that path might prove difficult for the Democrat, who is counting on voters to remember that he stood with Warner in support of a 2004 budget plan that pumped funds into such government services as heath care and schools that touch people's lives. Opposed by Kilgore because it raised taxes, the spending plan was popular across Virginia, polls show.
In Precinct 813, many residents said they had heard nothing about it.
Some of these residents are from other states. Others bought after spending a few years in only slightly less new communities in Fairfax County, Sterling or Ashburn before they moved on, trading homes there for larger ones farther west.
Lansdowne advertises "resort living," where streets wind around a rolling golf course and residents can swim in a 25-meter pool inside a renovated 1920s dairy barn. There is no grocery store -- yet. Bulldozers are hard at work on the new "town center." A sign advertises a patch of wooded land as the "Future Site of Church" -- denomination to be determined. It is not far from the "Future Day Care" and the "Future Canoe/Kayak" launch.
With three daughters younger than 10, three large dogs and a full-time job, Miller said, she rises each morning at 6:30 and rolls exhausted into bed at midnight. In between, she fights too much traffic down Route 7 to work out at a Gold's Gym. She's been anxiously watching the price of gas rise -- in recent weeks, it has cost her as much as $80 to fill up the Lincoln Navigator she uses to ferry clients throughout the county. She loves her local school but thinks it could use more funding.
Kaine, Kilgore and independent candidate H. Russell Potts Jr. have been positioning themselves on all those issues, but Miller said recently that she had not even heard there was a campaign on. And Warner, the governor who polls show is intensely popular throughout the state? "I don't know a thing about him," she said. "I know what he looks like. That's about it."
Miller is unapologetic. She said she pays attention to what's important to her, and politicians -- with their mudslinging glossy mailers -- just don't rank. About the most news she gets each week, she said, is while she's getting her nails done. The salon keeps on CNN.
"I'll tell you what," Miller said. "When I'm sitting around with my friends and neighbors, we don't ever talk about politics. Ever."
It's not that neighbors are afraid of politics or following some old standard about being polite, insisted Jeffrey Esposito and Tony Pohlig, who live not far from Miller and Elrefai on Stream Crossing Court.
Esposito and Pohlig bought into this community two years ago. Originally from New Jersey, they spent three years in Sterling before moving into their large house, filled with technological goodies.
From a central brain in the basement, they can program their televisions, security system and a lighting scheme. In the morning, their lights come on automatically with their alarm, low at first and brightening 15 minutes later. At 9:30 each night, their lights dim to a warm glow.
That's what they were looking for, they said: the house, plus potluck barbecues with neighbors, kids running up and down the street.
They said they've never discussed any of this year's major campaign issues with their friends on the street. Not the death penalty, which they oppose. Not abortion rights, which they support. Not the region's rapid growth, which they think is a good idea as long as developers contribute toward new schools and roads.
They believe they are the only gay couple on the street, but they don't know where their neighbors stand on same-sex marriage. For all they know, they might be the only people on the street who have regularly voted for Democrats. They've never asked.
As of last week, Esposito said he had heard little from the campaigns, and his vote was up for grabs.
"If you're not having your life impacted by this daily," Pohlig said, "it's just very easy to overlook the political process entirely."