Obama Campaign Hopes To Turn Red Virginia Blue

Among the states up for grabs in this year's presidential race is a surprise: Virginia.

It hasn't voted for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But in recent years, Virginia has elected back-to-back Democratic governors and a U.S. senator. And a Democrat is highly favored to win this year's Senate race — all of which has the Barack Obama campaign thinking it can turn the state from red to blue.

The Obama for President office in Winchester, Va., is just across the street from where George Washington once had an office, and around the corner from where Stonewall Jackson had his headquarters as he led Confederate troops up the Shenandoah Valley in the Civil War. In short, it's not the kind of place you would expect to find a Democratic presidential campaign headquarters, but it's an example of what the Obama campaign thinks it can do this election year.

"When we first drove out here, we were told we should organize the three Democrats out here and make sure we get all three of them," says Jason Berry, the lead field organizer in the Winchester office, a farming hub near West Virginia. "But as we've come here, we've noticed there are a lot of Republicans who want ... permission to vote for Obama and a lot of people who are very upset with the way the country's going."

Berry says that about 200 people showed up when the office first opened a few weeks ago.

The Winchester office is one of 28 the campaign has opened across Virginia. Berry says the idea is to identify Obama supporters and get them to reach out to their neighbors.

"The strength of this: They know who they are. They know what the local issues are. They know the local things going on so they can speak to their fellow voters and also in a sense be almost character witnesses for Sen. Obama and build support that way."

Virginia has undergone demographic changes that have made the state friendlier to Democrats. The high-tech jobs in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., have lured new residents to the state. But Republicans are skeptical the state's voting patterns have changed that dramatically.

Republican Congressman Tom Davis is vacating a Northern Virginia seat Democrats hope to capture in the fall. In an interview in the Capitol, he says some of the Republicans' problems are self-inflicted and that pundits are getting carried away.

"I think they read too much into the state turning blue," he says. "What you have is some changing demographics but most of it is just the Republican brand name being in the trash can, enabling wide-awake Democrats to take advantage of that. And in Virginia they've done that."

Davis says recent state GOP candidates have run poor campaigns, or been too socially conservative to appeal to suburban voters.

Sen. John McCain's Virginia office is located a few floors below his national headquarters in Crystal City, near the Pentagon. It has the low hum of a well-oiled machine. Trey Walker, the regional McCain campaign manager for the mid-Atlantic, says while Democrats have been successful in local Virginia elections, the presidential campaign is another matter. He says McCain's supporters are fired up.

"We're covered up with volunteers," he says. "We've got people coming in the door as they are today. We've got headquarters all over the state. Folks knocking on doors — we don't have enough bumper stickers. We can't keep them in stock.

"That's a good indicator — a good grassroots indicator. Things look good in Virginia."

The McCain campaign is confident the state's large population of active and retired military personnel will flock to the former Navy flier, and that he'll do well in the traditionally Republican rural parts of the state. But Democrats have made inroads in rural Virginia, led by former governor and now U.S. Senate candidate Mark Warner.

Political science professor Mark Rozell of George Mason University says Warner's commanding lead in the Senate race over Republican Jim Gilmore may help Obama in November.

"We usually think of a down-ticket effect when we talk about coattails, but Mark Warner's advantages over Jim Gilmore are so huge that we could see the reverse coattails effect where the Senate candidate is actually lifting up the presidential nominee on the ballot at the same time," Rozell says.

Both Obama and McCain are reportedly considering Virginians as running mates. Obama is looking at Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, and McCain vetting Republican Rep. Eric Cantor. It's an indication as good as any that the state's 13 electoral votes are in play.

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