Obama Ventures Into Va.'s Really Red Area

Earlier this year, it was widely assumed that Virginia would be a safe bet for Republican presidential nominee John McCain. After all, no Democratic candidate for president has won there in 44 years. But the latest polls put Barack Obama ahead. Tuesday, Obama was looking for votes in an area of the state where Republicans dominate.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne, good morning. Take a look at an electoral map, and this is one of the surprises. Virginia a long time red state is now colored blue. Maps like the one at npr.org reflect polls showing Barack Obama leading. He's trying to become the first Democrat to win Virginia in decades.

INSKEEP: In fact, both candidates are trying to capture a state that the other side won last time. And we'll hear from McCain's campaign in a moment.

MONTAGNE: We begin with NPR's Don Gonyea who's traveling with the Obama campaign.

DON GONYEA: Harrisonburg, Virginia, is smack dab in the middle of the Commonwealth. This time of year, it's a Technicolor celebration of orange, yellow, and red fall colors. Red, Republican red, also describes the way this part of Virginia votes, hardly fertile ground for a Democrat. But...

(Soundbite of Democratic campaign rally, Harrisonburg, Virginia)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I am so grateful to be in this gorgeous Shenandoah Valley.

GONYEA: Barack Obama was at James Madison University. The crowd was 8,000 inside. There were another 12,000 who couldn't get in the door. Now, this area of the state is never truly up for grabs. Republicans normally don't need to come here to win votes. And for a Democrat, the feeling is generally, why bother? So it's beyond rare for any presidential candidate to come through during a general election. In fact, Obama took note of just how long it's been.

(Soundbite of Democratic campaign rally, Harrisonburg, Virginia)

Senator OBAMA: I just discovered that the last presidential candidate to be here was Steven Douglas. That's the guy who ran against Abraham Lincoln, in case you haven't been following your history. So it's been quite a while. And I am glad to be here.

GONYEA: Yesterday, James Madison University political scientist Bob Roberts came by to see the latest Democratic nominee to visit.

Dr. BOB ROBERTS (Professor of Political Science, James Madison University): Why would you in the last week of the campaign go to the most Republican area of Virginia? And it shows he's very confident. He's not - he's willing in a sense to try to mobilize voters wherever they are.

GONYEA: Professor Roberts says Obama's strategy mirrors successful statewide campaigns run by Democratic Governor Tim Kaine and Democratic U.S. Senator Jim Webb. That is to do very well in the traditional Democratic area of Northern Virginia, but also do better than expected elsewhere.

Unidentified Man: He's trying to suppress the Republican vote by mobilizing the Democratic vote.

GONYEA: Giant crowds even in red states have become automatic for Obama. That was the case in Harrisonburg and again last night in Norfolk where 22,000 turned out for a late-night rally at a minor league ballpark. Norfolk is a city that's home to a number of U.S. military bases and facilities. Obama reached out to a group of voters that Republicans have longed counted on, military veterans and military families.

(Soundbite of Democratic campaign rally, Norfolk, Virginia)

Senator OBAMA: And I look forward to serving as your commander in chief.

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

Senator OBAMA: And when it comes to keeping this country safe, we don't have to choose between retreating from the world and fighting a war without end in Iraq.

GONYEA: He again promised to end the war in Iraq responsibly.

Senator OBAMA: And then we're going to turn our sights on Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and we are going to put them out of business once and for all.

GONYEA: Today it's more Republican states for Obama, North Carolina and Florida, including an 11 p.m. rally in Orlando with former president Bill Clinton. Obama has also purchased time on network and cable television outlets for a 30-minute-long message to voters this evening. That program, also unusual for a presidential campaign, begins at 8 p.m. Eastern time. Don Gonyea, NPR News Norfolk.

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