For the first time in years, Virginia Democrats will head to a national party convention with a swagger and with the growing belief that this is the year they will break the Republican Party's four-decade lock on the state's electoral votes.
Four years ago, Virginia Democrats watched with envy as the state's elected leaders, all Republicans, got top billing at the Republican presidential convention. Then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III and the Virginia delegation were the only ones to stay at George W. Bush's Philadelphia hotel. Gilmore, a Bush confidant, went on to become chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Now, the tables, and the Democratic Party's fortunes, have turned more than a bit.
Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, is leading his party's delegation to Boston after successfully maneuvering his tax and budget plan through the General Assembly. This year, it's Warner who is taking the national stage: He has just become chairman of the National Governors Association. And the Democratic presidential ticket of Sens. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.) is paying more attention to Virginia than any national ticket has in recent memory.
"How could this have gone better for them?" asked Larry Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia. "The GOP in the General Assembly caved to Mark Warner's desires. The [Democrats'] likely nominee for governor is moving up on the money chart. And their presidential nominee is considered a favorite nationally."
Recalling how different things were during the Gilmore days, Sabato said, "If a year is an eternity in politics, then four years ago was the beginning of time."
The 108-member Virginia delegation to the convention includes elected officials and party regulars. Twenty percent are black, 3 percent are Asian, and 5 percent are Hispanic or Native American, according to data from the Democratic Party of Virginia. Slightly more than half of the delegates are women, and 34 percent come from Northern Virginia.
Delegation Chairman Larry Framme, a former head of the state party, said the party faithful who are traveling to Boston are more excited than ever. "I remember the 1992 convention," he said. "There was an electricity, literally. This is beyond that."
Framme credits the state's February primary as the catalyst for the Kerry campaign's interest in the state. Kerry won Virginia handily during the primary, helping him prove his electability in the South. Edwards came in second.
Kerry has made 16 trips to Virginia in the past year and a half, including three visits in the past two months and a fourth visit planned this week. On July 16, Kerry attended a Northern Virginia fundraiser that netted $1.75 million for his campaign.
At the convention, Warner is expected to speak briefly Thursday, drawing on his tax and budget success to discuss fiscal responsibility and the need to address the federal deficit.
Earlier in the week, Warner will be honored by the Democratic Leadership Conference, a group that urges Democrats to be centrists. He might leave Boston briefly to join Kerry at an appearance in Norfolk as Kerry makes a final swing through the country before accepting the nomination.
"Of all the cities in the nation to pick, [Kerry's] going to be in Norfolk," marveled U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, a convention delegate. "It obviously means they are serious."
Also serious is Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the party's likely nominee for governor next year. Kaine will be doing double duty in Boston: celebrating the Kerry-Edwards ticket while raising money for an expected race against Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R).
Despite the enthusiasm in Virginia, history suggests low expectations.
The last time the Old Dominion's 13 electoral votes went to a Democrat was in 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson won in a landslide. Since then, it's been all GOP. In 2000, Bush won 52 percent of the Virginia vote, compared with 44 percent for Al Gore.
"Bush should be okay in Virginia, unless Kerry wins [nationally] by a substantial margin," Sabato said.