Oct. 25, 2012— -- It started as a snarky comeback when President Obama knocked down Mitt Romney for arguing that the Navy is now smaller than any time since 1917 with the reminder that the military has fewer "horses and bayonets." But the punch line quickly became real campaign fodder in the razor-thin Senate race between Tim Kaine, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, and George Allen, a former Republican senator.
The comments could now play a role in determining whether Democrats are able to hold on to the open Senate seat being vacated by Jim Webb and whether Obama can once again pull out a win in the battleground state.
Within hours of the debate, Allen's campaign released a statement ripping Obama's "disregard" for the potential loss of "200,000 Virginia jobs."
And in a campaign ad less than two days after his comments, Allen, 60, tied Kaine to Obama, suggesting that the two Democrats support draconian cuts to the military.
"Decisions in Washington ripple through our communities, harming small businesses," Allen said in the spot. "My plan will stop defense cuts by growing our economy, using our energy resources and creating jobs. My job is to fight for yours."
Kaine's campaign responded, saying that Kaine, 54, has always opposed deep defense cuts and Allen's claims in the ad are a "transparently partisan attempt to win re-election."
The debate is a staple of politics in Virginia, home of the largest U.S. Naval base, Naval Station Norfolk, and the fourth-largest federal workforce, according to the most recent Census data from 2009.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said Democrats and Republicans campaigning in the state at the federal level have always had to dance around the issue of federal spending, which is at least partly responsible for the relative health of Virginia's economy.
"[Democrats] point out that the federal government is essential to Virginia's strong economy and its one of the reasons we have a 5.9 percent unemployment rate," Sabato told ABC News. "What Republicans do is they attack federal spending but they exempt defense."
The stakes are high in a Senate race that could not be tighter. The race between Allen and Kaine is virtually tied, as it has been for nearly the entire election, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average.
And Romney has also staked his fate in Virginia on his plan for the Navy, which he says has fewer ships now than it needs to carry out its mission.
His campaign today released a new radio ad lampooning Obama's "horses and bayonets" comment.
"To Mitt Romney, that's a problem, to President Obama, it's a chance to deliver a punch line," the ad says. "Does President Obama know how much his defense cuts will hurt us?"
The ad is also being run in other states, including Florida.
But Obama also hopes to pull off a repeat performance of his 2008 sweep in Virginia. He faces a difficult, some say daunting task. Virginia has only voted for one Democrat, Obama, in the past 40 years.
Obama did it in 2008 by winning several states won by George W. Bush in 2004. But Sabato says Obama risks losing by wide margins in this election in the southwestern counties least hospitable to Democrats.
"You've seen a virtual collapse among whites and particularly white males in rural areas," Sabato said. "Obama is going to crash and burn in southwest Virginia, but his goal is to reduce the massive loss."