Oct. 22, 2008 — -- At this week's Sunday morning service, the pastor at the Third Baptist Church of Portsmouth, Va., filled his sermon with a striking note of urgency, 16 days before Election Day.
"I want you to vote. I want you to vote early!" the Rev. Joseph B. Fleming implored.
"We're in combat! You heard what I say? We're in combat. This is a battle that must be won!" Fleming cried, as heads nodded and shouts of "Yessir!" and "Hallelujah!" echoed through the chapel.
"It's not about any one candidate. It's about you. It's about your grandchildren. It's about the sacrifice that our foreparents made," Fleming told the congregation, comprised entirely of African-Americans.
In his quest to become the first Democrat to win Virginia in two generations, Sen. Barack Obama will count on sizable support in cities like Portsmouth, which is 50 percent black.
"I think whoever can win this area, I think that's where our president will come from," said Edward Parker, the president of Third Baptist's men's choir.
Just a short drive from the church is the Norfolk Naval Base, the area's predominant employer and the heart of this military community. Shipyards line the landscape.
At Sen. John McCain's local headquarters in Virginia Beach, volunteer Troy Cole was among the half-dozen workers dialing voters Sunday morning.
"McCain is going to bring us jobs, rather than allow businesses to continue to relocate overseas as Bush has allowed to happen," Cole said. "Obama will lose jobs and spend more."
"Virginia's gonna remain a red state," Cole confidently predicted.
But the fact that this critical region, the coastal southeastern portion of the state known as Hampton Roads, is in play in this election underscores the challenge McCain faces here.
"Although I've always been kind of a GOP guy, I'm probably still up in the air and may even go the other direction," said one man in his late 40s who declined to give his name but noted he works for the Department of Defense.
The man said many of his neighbors in the military towns along the Chesapeake Bay are feeling the same way.
"I think there's a lot of folks that are moving more toward the Democratic side, because they're a little disheartened with the last eight years with the way the GOP has gone," he said.
When asked whether former Secretary of State Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama that morning would have any impact in these Navy towns, the man called it "the nail in the coffin" for McCain.
"I think Obama already had a lead, and with [Powell's] endorsement, it's pretty much a done deal."
Polls suggest Obama has a substantial lead in Virginia. A CNN/Time/Opinion Research poll released Oct. 14 showed Obama ahead of McCain, 53-43 percent, among likely voters in the state.
Three hours north of Hampton Roads, another dependable Republican bastion seems vulnerable.
Over the past decade, as the suburbs of Washington, D.C., experienced a population explosion fueled by the high-tech boom and a surge in government contracting jobs, historically Republican Northern Virginia counties, such as Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun, have become increasingly Democratic.
In 2004, President George Bush beat Sen.John Kerry in both Prince William and Loudoun but lost in Fairfax, where the Democratic Party now has firm control of the local government.
Manassas is the county seat of Prince William and home to one of the more famous Civil War battlegrounds. But today the combatants aren't blue and gray -- they're blue and red.
In the last four elections, county voters chose Bush twice, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush, but the local winds may be changing.
"I think more people are going Democrat," said a woman named Anne, standing outside a Giant Food supermarket just down the road from Manassas National Battlefield. "The building I live in is for the elderly, and most of 'em there are for Obama."
Despite the fact that she's of McCain's generation, Anne said she can better relate to Obama.
"He's like someone you can talk to, just like I'm talking to you," she told a reporter. "And he doesn't have an attitude."
Obama Enthusiasm Spreading
Neighbors are noticing more Obama signs popping up on lawns.
"I think most of the people that I've talked to are all after the same thing. They're all looking for something fresh or something new. Like Obama says: change we need," said a retired firefighter and ex-Marine named Steve.
"Before, we always thought of our vote as, 'OK, we usually voted Democrat and we always thought, well, our state's gonna go red and that's just that,'" said woman named Patrice, who sports Obama bumper stickers on her car. "This year, we feel more excited."
Still, she's apprehensive.
"I think it's kinda cool that Virginia might go Obama-Biden, but I'm not really that confident it will," she said, noting that McCain signs still outnumber Obama signs in her neighborhood.
Throughout two days of interviews conducted at random, in both northern and southeastern parts of this traditionally Republican state, it was much more difficult to find supporters of John McCain than of Barack Obama.
A woman named Marcia, a Prince William County resident since 1966, was clearly in the minority.
"I'm not gonna vote for the black guy. He doesn't believe in the American flag," she said.