MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Tomorrow, President Obama will be stumping in Virginia for a vulnerable freshman congressman, Democrat Tom Perriello. This is the only public campaign event the president is doing for just one House member. Perriello squeaked to victory in 2008 in Virginia's conservative 5th District, which also voted for John McCain. And he won by the narrowest margin in the country: just 727 votes. Polls show Perriello trailing his challenger, Republican State Senator Robert Hurt. The national parties and outside groups have been spending like crazy on this race.
(Soundbite of political ads)
Unidentified Man #1: Robert Hurt, a favorite of oil billionaires...
Unidentified Woman #1: For two years, Perriello has been a rubber stamp for the Obama-Pelosi agenda.
Unidentified Woman #2: Seniors can't afford a world of hurt.
Representative TOM PERRIELLO (Democrat, Virginia): I'm Tom Perriello, and I...
Unidentified Man #2: You can't believe a word he says.
BLOCK: I caught up with both candidates this week in Virginia's 5th District. It's a sprawling wedge in the middle of the state, stretching from north of Charlottesville all the way down to the North Carolina border.
At midnight on Monday, the incumbent, Tom Perriello, set out on a 24-hour campaign spree across the district. He greeted late-night truckers, steelworkers. He got a haircut.
(Soundbite of applause)
BLOCK: And he worked the coffee machine with a barista at Baine's Books and Coffee in Appomattox.
Unidentified Woman #3 (Barista, Baine's Books and Coffee): Have you done this before?
Rep. PERRIELLO: I have not done latte making. This is what we're doing?
BLOCK: And you could imagine he was a little squeamish about being seen brewing a fancy latte...
Unidentified Woman #3: And we're going to steam it.
Rep. PERRIELLO: Let's do it.
Unidentified Woman #3: All right.
BLOCK: ...when his message is aimed at the working and middle class.
Rep. PERRIELLO: We know that every day, there are individuals and families out there that are struggling, working late-night shifts, working two shifts just to be able to support their family and make it through the day. And part of what we've tried so hard to do is to make it a little easier to get by in the 5th District, whether that's tax relief or helping to weatherize homes or helping to make college more affordable.
BLOCK: Later that day, I talked with Perriello after he met with veterans and students at Longwood University in Farmville.
Rep. PERRIELLO: The Republicans, to be honest, have the better bumper sticker and the better 30-second spot, but we have the actual plan and the work ethic behind it. And I think that people were saying, hey, we're ready to maybe look at something else and looked at the Republicans and said, wait a second, they're supporting the same, exact stuff that got us into this mess.
(Soundbite of phone bank)
Unidentified Woman #4: And we may be able - I'm a registered nurse, so we may be able to have somebody there just to monitor your husband until you get back from the voting poll, okay?
BLOCK: A Tom Perriello phone bank at the campaign office in Farmville.
Unidentified Woman #5: Bring everybody you can. I love that thought. Thank you so much. Have a good day.
BLOCK: A sign on the wall reminds them of that whisker-thin margin two years ago.
Lucas Brown is the regional field director for the Perriello campaign.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LUCAS BROWN (Regional Field Director, Perriello Campaign): In this election, the ground game is everything. It's such a narrow margin that it's going to be all about turnout.
BLOCK: I find Joy Speakes working the phones at Farmville headquarters. When she was 12 years old in 1951, she joined a walkout at the segregated, all-black high school to protest atrocious conditions there. The court case that followed ended up in the Supreme Court, as part of Brown versus Board of Education. And Speakes is looking at this election thinking about that history and trying to tap into the excitement Barack Obama generated two years ago when she talks to voters.
Ms. JOY SPEAKES: They'll say to me, is Obama on the ticket? You know? And for a while, I was saying, no, he's not on the ticket. But then, the next time I got a call and they asked me, was Obama on the ticket, and I said, yes, he is. His name is not on the ticket, but you need to get out to vote because he cannot keep his agenda going if you don't vote for the people that supported him. And so then, they begin to understand.
BLOCK: Not far away is the county Republican headquarters.
Unidentified Woman #6: On Election Day, are you planning to support the Republican candidate, Robert Hurt, for Congress?
BLOCK: It's front and center on Main Street in Farmville and painted bright red.
Unidentified Woman #6: Yes, okay. Great, because the upcoming general election is so critically important to getting Virginia and our country back on the right track.
BLOCK: Paul Hoffman is the Robert Hurt campaign chair for Prince Edward County.
Mr. PAUL HOFFMAN (Campaign Chair, Robert Hurt Campaign for Prince Edward County): There's a lot of interest out there in this particular election. I think a lot of people see the trend of the rampant growth of the national debt, the trend of much more intrusive government programs that interfere with their liberties and their ability to live their lives the way they choose to live their lives. And they're mad as heck, and they're not going to take it anymore.
BLOCK: As for Tom Perriello running as an independent Democrat in 2008?
Mr. HOFFMAN: Yes. He's bucked the system a little, but on the key bills of Obama care, cap and trade and the stimulus bill, he voted lockstep with the Democratic leadership in Washington.
BLOCK: The Republican committee chair for the county will be voting in his first election this year, he's just 18 years old: Daniel Bradshaw. And he thinks the Virginia electorate this year will look far different from two years ago.
Mr. DANIEL BRADSHAW: We had voters come out in 2008 that had never come out before, and I highly doubt they'll ever come out again.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
State Senator ROBERT HURT (Republican, Virginia): Good morning, good morning, good morning, good morning.
BLOCK: The Republican, Robert Hurt, greets a crowd of veterans in Danville, on the southern edge of Virginia.
State Sen. HURT: Hey.
Mr. DAVE NEWMAN: Hey, Rob. Good to see you.
State Sen. HURT: How are you, man? Thank you for your help. We're in the short rows now.
Mr. NEWMAN: Okay, that's good.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. NEWMAN: That's good.
BLOCK: We're in the short rows - that's tobacco-pulling talk. You start with the long rows in the middle of the field, save the corner for last. Hurt was thanking a committed supporter, Dave Newman, a veteran who served with the 25th Infantry in Korea. Newman wants a balanced budget, less spending, more jobs in this district, where there are pockets of unemployment over 20 percent.
Mr. NEWMAN: You know, I was raised in a Democrat home. My dad would have voted for that donkey they got if they hadn't run a person. And what's happened is the party has left the people.
BLOCK: When Robert Hurt talks to the veterans, he talks about a return to limited government, free enterprise and individual liberty.
State Sen. HURT: ...free enterprise and individual liberties. If you stop and think about our founders - and we're very, very proud of the founders that are connected to our 5th District: James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. You know, when you stop and think about those men and you stop and think about what they understood about tyranny and what they understood about freedom, I can tell you it brings this election, I think, into - even more to the forefront.
BLOCK: When we talk afterward, Robert Hurt says Congressman Perriello has consistently marched with the Democratic leadership, and that makes him out of step with voters in Virginia's 5th District.
State Sen. HURT: I think very much that people want to pull the emergency brake on this thing. We've got to pull the brake on what - on these policies that, I think, are taking us over a cliff. But by the same token, we have got to have the guts to make the tough choices, and we have to have the guts to lead.
(Soundbite of cars driving)
BLOCK: Along Farmville's Main Street, I find Linda Yoder. She owns a real estate company. She's an independent voting for Robert Hurt. She says he understands small business. She likes the idea of health care reform but thinks the law went too far.
Ms. LINDA YODER (Owner, Yoder Properties): I don't think that it is a guaranteed right like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Just like not everyone can afford a BMW and a Lincoln, maybe not everyone can afford the same health care coverage. Not everyone can afford to eat lobster two nights a week. Some people eat hot dogs.
BLOCK: Right across Main Street from Yoder Realty is Harlan Horton's law office. He's a Perriello supporter, says the congressman is honest, works hard and comes to town often.
Mr. HARLAN HORTON (Lawyer): I actually talked to Tom Perriello last Friday. He was in my office for a pretty long conversation, and I think there is some anti-incumbent sentiment, but I think Tom Perriello could actually stay. I mean, I think he might win.
BLOCK: But Horton does know voters who are flipping. They voted for Perriello two years ago but are turning to the Republican this year. Tom Perriello - elected by just 727 votes two years ago - has to hope that President Obama's rally in Virginia tomorrow will help him turn out enough voters to keep his seat. Republicans are banking on just the opposite: that the president's visit will drive their voters to the polls on Tuesday to vote Perriello out.