ABC News’ Michael Falcone reports:
RICHMOND, Va. — President Obama and Mitt Romney kicked off their campaigns in the critical battleground state of Virginia last week, and while voters who support each candidate don’t agree on much, they do see eye to eye on one thing: it’s going to be a tight race in the Old Dominion this fall.
Interviews with politically-engaged Virginians who live everywhere from Arlington to Hampton Roads, revealed an electorate that is beginning to tune into an unfolding 2012 election drama in which their state is front and center.
In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate since L.B.J. to win Virginia in the general election, and it was no accident that the president chose Richmond, Va. as the location of one of his first official campaign rallies last weekend.
A recent Washington Post poll found Obama leading Romney 51 percent to 44 percent among registered voters in the state. But the Romney campaign is just now shifting their organizing efforts there into high gear.
Virginia GOP Victory Chairman Pete Snyder said that 9 “victory centers” were already open across the Commonwealth. “The most ever open this early in Virginia,” Snyder noted.
Snyder, a former pollster, said he sees opportunities for Romney to catch up by capitalizing on the top four issues on the minds of Virginians: the economy, unemployment, the deficit and gas prices.
“The horserace is going to change a lot in the next couple of weeks, days, months,” Snyder said. “The issue set probably won’t, and that’s why I feel very confident that Governor Romney is going to win come November.”
Republicans ABC News spoke with said they were still warming up to their newly-minted GOP nominee, but these voters expressed universal enthusiasm about making Obama a one-term president.
“I’m excited about anybody but Barack Obama,” said Daniel Jones, a maintenance mechanic in Portsmouth, Va. “This is an important election, I don’t want to be Greece, and that’s where we’re going.”
Dan McDonald of Carrollton, Va., who turned out for Romney’s event last Thursday at a maritime equipment company near Norfolk, pronounced himself “satisfied with Romney” as 2012′s Republican standard bearer.
“He’s going to get my vote no matter what come November 6,” McDonald said, “I don’t want to stay on the same path that we’re currently on.”
And Jim Hewitt, an elected school board member in Portsmouth said of Romney: “He’s a turnaround specialist and that’s what our country needs, so I’m excited.”
Romney adviser Ed Gillespie acknowledged in an interview that when it comes to Virginia, “there is a very strong streak of independents that you’ve got to appeal to.” And according to the Post’s polling, Obama starts with a 16 point advantage among them.
Gillespie, a former counselor to President George W. Bush, also pointed to “very pronounced” geographic differences in the state.
“The things that may matter in Hampton Roads don’t matter as much out west or up in northern Virginia,” he said. “Getting all of that balance right is important.”
The Romney loyalists will be facing a highly-organized Obama team that already has more than a dozen field offices open throughout the state. The emphasis on the ground game was evident at the president’s rally in Richmond on Saturday where several volunteers offered testimonials about their own experiences to a crowd of about 8,000 that filled a sports arena at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Some of the president’s most vocal supporters said he has not received enough credit for the accomplishments of his first term.
“I think it’s been a very tough scenario both on the economic front, on the international front and definitely on the Congressional front, “ said Jaime Areizaga, a lawyer from Arlington. “To have the kind of Congress he’s dealing with is very challenging.”
Though questions loom about whether Obama’s campaign can generate 2008 levels of enthusiasm four years later, count Areizaga as one of the supporters who plans to campaign hard for the president between now and Election Day.
“I will do as much if not more than in 2008 because for me the contrast is clear,” Areizaga said. “Has it been a perfect presidency? No. But the alternative is so much worse.”
Florence Buchholz of Charlottesville said she has already knocked on doors for Obama in her community and helped out with voter registration efforts near the University of Virginia campus.
“I think he’s done a very good job. I think he’s saved the country from another Great Depression, which he doesn’t get enough credit for,” Buchholz said. “These are problems that took a long time to reach this state and it’s going to take a while, but things are headed in the right direction.”
And Michelle Nichols, a media consultant from Richmond, said: “We see past the political one-liners that make it seem as if he’s not accomplishing what he needs to accomplish.”
She said she was particularly concerned about what a Romney presidency might mean for women.
“I’m going to have to do everything that I can to make sure that we get out and vote because I would be affected in every way,” Nichols said.