Economic jitters and a favorable Democratic climate are contributing to a competitive presidential contest in Virginia, a traditionally Republican state in national elections but one where Democrats have won the last three races for governor or U.S. Senate.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll in the commonwealth shows the powerful role of the economy in voters' views this year: Fifty-two percent call it the single most important issue in their vote, far and away No. 1. And eight in 10 are worried about the economy's direction in the next few years, with 45 percent very worried.
Those concerns, likely exacerbated by last week's market upheaval, work to Barack Obama's advantage.
He holds a 10-point lead over John McCain among registered voters in trust to handle the economy; a bigger, 23-point advantage in understanding Americans' economic problems; and large head-to-head leads in vote preference among those who cite the economy as their top issue and who express worry about its direction.
McCain's also hurt by his perceived proximity to George W. Bush – 53 percent of registered voters in the state think McCain would lead in the same direction as Bush, hardly popular since 83 percent think the country's seriously off on the wrong track. And by a 20-point margin, more think Obama would bring needed change to Washington.
But McCain pushes back elsewhere.
Nearly half the state's voters cite a wide range of other top concerns, and among them he leads by a 19-point margin. As is the case nationally, he prevails over Obama in trust to handle terrorism or an unexpected crisis. And he leads by nearly 20 points among veterans, a sizable group in Virginia.
In a head-to-head match-up 49 percent of Virginia likely voters support Obama, 46 percent McCain – a close race, with the difference within this poll's margin of sampling error.
It moves decimally, to a rounded 50-45 percent, when third-party candidates Ralph Nader and Bob Barr are included.
White women, whose preference has been unsettled in national ABC/Post polls, may be key here as well.
They favored George W. Bush over John Kerry by a vast 29-point margin in 2004, when Bush won Virginia. But in the state's 2006 U.S. Senate race, Republican George Allen won white women by just 6 points, close enough for the Democrat, Jim Webb, to capture the seat by less than a 10,000-vote margin.
In this poll McCain leads Obama among white women by a scant 5 points, much like the Webb-Allen result.
Economic concerns may be a reason; they are higher among white women than among white men, who overwhelmingly favor McCain. For example, among registered voters, 63 percent of white women are worried about their own family's financial situation; that declines to 51 percent of white men.
Republicans have won Virginia in every presidential election since 1968. But the state also has elected Democrats; in addition to Webb's victory in 2006, Democrats have won the last two elections for governor.
And the climate is good for Democrats this year: Former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner holds a 2-1 lead in his race against Republican Jim Gilmore, another former governor. Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine has a powerful 66 percent job approval rating. And Webb's approval rating is 54 percent.