In Tight Race, Obama Pulls Ahead in Virginia Battleground

A new poll shows Obama pulling ahead of McCain in conservative strongholds.

Sept. 22, 2008— -- Virginia, a traditionally conservative state, has become a key battleground, with 13 electoral votes at stake in the election. A Democrat has not carried the state of Virginia since 1964, and few have seriously competed in Virginia -- until Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

Victoria McCullough, regional field director of the Obama campaign, is part of Obama's small army that seeks to sway undecided voters in local neighborhoods.

"This is a fantastic crowd for a Sunday afternoon," McCullough said, impressed at the turnout for the recent event in Williamsburg, Va. "This looks great."

Working with Obama's campaign, Emily Pease is her local neighborhood leader. Through Obama's campaign Web site, she maps out neighbors in her area who are still on the fence.

"I see close friends [on the map], but then I see all these people I don't know," Pease said. "It tells me who our neighbors are."

Neighbors are the key to the Obama campaign's strategy in Virginia, what they call their "persuasion army." Their plan focuses on personal initiatives in the neighborhood, such as backyard barbeques, that they believe may win more voters than a TV ad.

"They see each other at the grocery store. They see each other at church," said Mitch Stewart, Obama's campaign director in Virginia. "They know and trust each other."

Obama's decision to compete in the state of Virginia is a testament to the changing political tides. A population boom in the more moderate Washington, D.C., suburbs has shifted the state demographic. The state has elected two Democratic governors -- former Gov. Mark Warner and Gov. Tim Kaine, who catapulted into the spotlight as a potential vice presidential running mate for Barack Obama, as well as a Democratic senator, Jim Webb, in the last six years.

A new ABC News poll out on Monday finds that Obama is gaining ground across the state, even in once-Republican strongholds; Obama holds a narrow three-point lead over Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

More than demographic changes, Obama's lead comes from economic concerns about the economy -- an area that 52 percent of voters defined as their most important issue, and an area where Obama holds an advantage over McCain.

In areas traditionally conservative -- such as eastern Virginia, where President Bush won by 15 points in 2004 -- Obama trails by just five points. In the western part of the state, dominated by coal production, where Bush won by 24 points, McCain leads only by 18.

In the Democratic base of hi-tech and hi-salaried northern Virginia, Obama is doing seven points better than John Kerry did in 2004.

But the southeast of the state, above all, is swing country. Towns like Norfolk and Virginia Beach both have large military communities and a high concentration of African Americans. In this highly contested area, Bush won by three points in 2004; now, Obama leads by five.

But organization only goes so far in a state that Bush won by nine points in 2004.

"This helps Obama make up a couple of those points," said Larry Sabato, professor and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "But he's going to have to make up the remainder based on issues, trends, 2008."

Republicans in Virginia Beach say Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has given a boost to their organization in terms of enthusiasm and support.

"We are getting gobs of people who have never worked on a political campaign before," said Cindy Rhodes, McCain's volunteer coordinator in the area.

The McCain camp is also using technology, Internet VoIP phones, to their advantage.

"As our volunteers are making the phone calls, they are entering the respondents' answers, and that data is uploaded in real time," Rhodes said.

Over the next few weeks, as both campaigns enter the home stretch, volunteers and staffers will be knocking on thousands of doors every weekend, attempting to score each and every undecided voter.