How Virginia Became A Battleground State For decades Virginia has voted for the Republican presidential ticket, but this year voting patterns are less clear. Robert Siegel speaks with delegates at a welcoming party for Virginians at the Republican National Convention.
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How Virginia Became A Battleground State

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How Virginia Became A Battleground State

How Virginia Became A Battleground State

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. As we just heard, my co-host Robert Siegel is reporting from the Republican convention in St. Paul this week. Thanks to Hurricane Gustav, there will be fewer speeches, fewer GOP stars and more public solemnity. But that still leaves plenty of time for party politics and political partying.

Last night, Robert visited a Republican Party party. It was thrown by the delegation of a state where the presidential race is surprisingly close, according to the polls.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. JEFF FREDERICK (Chairman, Republican Party of Virginia): Good evening, Virginia Republicans.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Jeff Frederick, the Virginia state party chair, wore shorts to a very informal arcade night at the Ramada Inn, where the Virginia delegation is staying. The Virginia Republicans played pool and Nintendo Wii games of golf and bowling.

And amid the festivities, Jeff Frederick appealed for donations to a Baton Rouge church for hurricane relief, and he appealed for attendance at today's abbreviated session.

MR. FREDERICK: The RNC, Republican National Committee, has asked that everybody be ready to leave the hotel at 1:00 p.m. tomorrow afternoon. It is very, very, very important that if you're a delegate or an alternate, that you are there and in your seat. The last thing we want is the press scanning and seeing empty seats as we open up the convention, particularly when we're going to be doing everything we can, again, to recognize what's going on on the Gulf Coast.

SIEGEL: For the first time in decades, Virginia is in play. In recent years, Democrats have elected two straight governors, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. Two years ago, Democrat Jim Webb won a Senate seat, and Warner is heavily favored to win the other seat this year. The presidential race?

Mr. WENDELL WALKER (Republican Delegate): We're going to give Senator Obama the fight for his life.

SIEGEL: That's convention delegate Wendell Walker of Lynchburg. That's home to the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. When Republicans carry Virginia, they rack up big majorities in the south of the state, in conservative places like Lynchburg. For conservative Republicans like Mr. Walker, John McCain's choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate is a big plus.

Mr. WALKER: I think among the conservatives, that's the signal that we've been looking for in the VP. I early on was not a John McCain supporter.

SIEGEL: Whom did you like more?

Mr. WALKER: I was - Mitt Romney was the one that I was favoring there, but I think several weeks ago, after watching the forum on Saddleback Church with Rick Warren, I think the nation really saw the difference between maturity and inexperience there.

SIEGEL: But what helps the Virginia GOP down South may not be so helpful in rapidly growing Northern Virginia, or NOVA, as retiring Republican Congressman Tom Davis calls it. He's a moderate who has represented the suburbs of Washington, D.C. for 14 years, and he's seen all the polls that show a Virginia dead heat.

Representative TOM DAVIS (Republican, Virginia): You get a lot of hoopla about Obama and Virginians. And if Obama gets to 325 electoral votes, maybe he'll carry Virginia. But if it remains close, Virginia should be Republican.

Obama is under-performing up in our area right now vis-�-vis how Kaine and Webb did and the like, and so usually they win their races in the urban areas. And in NOVA, which is 30 percent of the vote, and he's not getting the vote out of there that he needs right now.

SIEGEL: You're talking about in Fairfax County, where you're from, in Northern Virginia.

Rep. DAVIS: Yeah. No. They're saying we can get (unintelligible) African-American turnout, but the other side of that is you look down to Buchanan County in Southwest Virginia, it's a white county. United Mine Workers used to hold reign down there. It's a county John Kerry carried. Obama lost it in the primary nine to one. He's going to have trouble taking it in the general.

SIEGEL: Representative Davis is a veteran of Republican conventions. For alternate Jenna Baker of Richmond, it's all new, and it's disappointing to her that Hurricane Gustav has scaled this convention back.

Ms. JENNA BAKER (Republican Delegate Alternate): Absolutely. This is my first convention. I was looking forward to seeing the President and the Vice President and the First Lady and just hearing all the different speakers, and it's definitely a disappointment. But they're doing what they have to do. They're, you know, taking care of our nation before they're taking care of their party. So�

SIEGEL: Well, as it turned out Laura Bush did address the convention. At age 23, Jenna Baker was understandably unfamiliar with the star who was working the room at the Ramada, the 74-year-old man with the golden pompadour and the white golf togs, 1950's teen idol Pat Boone.

Mr. PAT BOONE (Entertainer): Well, I left the golf course in Hilton Head, South Carolina a little while ago, flew up to be on with Sean Hannity at his request. But after I landed, I found out that they've changed the plans, like most everything here at the convention, and I guess they wanted to be concentrating on the hurricane.

SIEGEL: I think we're burying the lead. You left the golf course�

Mr. BOONE: Yes.

SIEGEL: �to go on Sean Hannity?

Mr. BOONE: Yes. This is why I'm dressed like this.

SIEGEL: Pat Boone says his first convention was 1976 as a Ronald Reagan delegate. That was the year that Reagan challenged Gerald Ford for the nomination, running as the true conservative, and lost. Four years later, he won.

Boone extolled the virtues of Governor Sarah Palin. And for those who belittle her experience, he recalled similar feelings about a vice president few others at the Virginia party could remember: Harry Truman.

At the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, this is Robert Siegel.

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