Dems eye Va. as 2008 battleground

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. -- Gordon Maddox, a retired career police officer in this southern Virginia town, ticked off his priorities when deciding who to vote for in a presidential race.

"Integrity." "Good moral character." "Christian leadership."

These qualities rarely appear in national polls asking voters to list their priorities this election. But they come up often in southern Virginia, home to numerous military schools and evangelical universities.

Largely on the strength of this region, Republicans have been taking Virginia in presidential elections for decades. The last time a Democrat won here was in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson defeated U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater.

But Democrats believe the political stars may be aligned to turn the Old Dominion their way.

For instance, Virginia has elected back-to-back Democrats for governor. In 2006, voters sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate to replace a Republican. And Democrats made significant gains in 2007 in the Virginia House and took control of the state Senate.

Most important, Democrats may not have to win over southern Virginians.

That's because the Virginia counties in the north close to Washington, D.C., have seen a huge influx of people in recent years and they vote Democratic.

"Northern Virginia has gotten deeper and deeper blue," says Bob Hovis, 66, a lawyer who lives in Fairfax County about 15 miles from Washington. "I think this is the year to turn Virginia completely blue."

Since 2004, one out of every four new voter registrations have been in three counties: Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William, according to figures from the state Board of Elections. All are in Northern Virginia.

The race is close, polls say. Republican John McCain's lead of 50%-46% over Democrat Barack Obama in a CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corp. poll, conducted in Virginia after both parties held their conventions, was within the poll's margin of error.

Mark Rozell, a public policy professor based at George Mason University's Arlington campus, says he had expected the growth of the Democrat-leaning north and an increase in minority groups (which tend to vote Democratic) around the state to eventually weaken the Republican grip. But the change "came about more suddenly and dramatically than I had ever imagined."

The Obama campaign seems to sense a chance and is moving to capitalize on the trend. Obama has made 10 public appearances in Virginia since June. McCain has made three. Obama has outspent McCain $7 million to $4.6 million in Virginia, says Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks ad costs.

Amy LaMarca volunteered in 2004 for Democrat John Kerry near her home in Fredericksburg and remembers fellow volunteers having to buy their own campaign materials. This year, she says, the Obama campaign has fully staffed the area.

"There was this assumption that the South was unwinnable, that we were just a bunch of country bumpkins," she says.

The success of some Democrats in recent years will still be hard to duplicate for Obama.

Although the 2006 race for the U.S. Senate was won by Democrat Jim Webb, he did so barely, with a 9,329-vote margin of victory out of 2.3 million votes cast.

And he won against Sen. George Allen, whose campaign was subjected to numerous negative articles in newspapers, TV programs and the Internet after he referred to a man of South Asian descent as "macaca" — an ethnic slur in some countries.

Also, Gov. Tim Kaine and his gubernatorial predecessor, Mark Warner (who is running for the U.S. Senate this year), ran on moderate, almost conservative platforms of vowing to slash government agencies and not raise taxes.

Ron Jaeckle, who works at Fort Lee outside of Richmond, says there were "no substantial differences" between those candidates and a traditional GOP platform of low taxes and small government. But he says Obama's positions are much more liberal, making it hard for him to win over Virginia.

In 2004, President Bush beat Kerry 54%-45% and prevailed in 102 of the state's 134 voting localities, according to figures from the state elections board.

Virginians in the south give a variety of reasons why they have voted Republican so consistently.

For Darren Apple, a door installer who lives on the south side of Richmond, the answer is simple: "If your daddy does something, that's what you do."

Obama's appeal is lost on many people in rural Virginia and in such towns as Mechanicsville, a working-class suburb of Richmond where American flags are on display outside homes on seemingly every block.

Victoria Derby, who owns a cleaning business in Mechanicsville, says she thinks Republicans are more likely to help small-business owners like herself and lists off other policy stances that she shares with the GOP, but she says questions about Obama's character are paramount for Virginians.

"If John McCain had that very same preacher, I would not be voting for him," Derby says of Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright, who made several incendiary comments that prompted Obama to leave his church. Obama "should've gotten up and walked out of that church a long time ago."

Maddox pointed to comments that Obama's wife, Michelle, made in February that she was proud of her country for the first time in her life. "Those things, for people who are patriotic and love their country, that turns them off," he says.

O.P. Ditch, a retired Air Force colonel who runs, sums up the Democrats' hopes of winning over his long-red state: "They're dreaming."