BRISTOW, Va. — Democrat Barack Obama hopes Virginia, a former GOP stronghold with a legacy of slavery and segregation, is fertile ground as he seeks to crack the Republican bastion of the South and become the first black president.
Republican John McCain won't yield there or elsewhere, setting up potential showdowns unseen in decades in certain states.
Virginia, where Democrats taste opportunity and Republicans play defense, is a prominent example of how the Electoral College map — and the fight to reach the requisite 270 votes for victory — has the potential to change from elections past as Obama and McCain square off over the next five months.
Both candidates argue that they appeal across the political spectrum and can expand the electoral playing field by making more states competitive than in previous elections. Obama, the first-term Illinois senator, hopes to rally black voters in Republican-held Southern states, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina among them. McCain, the four-term Arizona senator, wants to fight for Democratic-held coastal states, including Maine, Washington and, perhaps, California.
The reality: If the election is as close as Republicans and Democrats alike expect, the competition will play out primarily in 14 states.
Of them, five — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — are in the Great Lakes region and offer a combined 78 votes. Two — Iowa and Missouri — are in Middle America with 18 votes up for grabs. Three with 19 votes — Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico — are in the West. Florida, New Hampshire and Oregon — 38 votes in all — also are on the list.
Video: McCain ‘changing’ his image Virginia, with 13 votes, is the only one in the group that didn't see high-level action in 2004.
The state hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 and hasn't been hard-fought in a White House race in years. But Virginia moves into the competitive category in 2008, given Democratic gains fueled by high population growth in the moderate-to-liberal Washington suburbs.
George W. Bush comfortably won Virginia twice, but he lost the northern part to Democrat John Kerry four years ago. Voters there were critical in helping Democrats retain the governor's mansion in 2005 and seize a GOP-held Senate seat in 2006 that gave Democrats control of Congress. This year, former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner is expected to win easily in his race for the state's other Senate seat left open by the retiring GOP Sen. John Warner.
"We want to campaign here and we want to win here," Gov. Tim Kaine, Obama's senior-most Virginia backer, told The Associated Press after Obama clinched the nomination.
Signaling his intention to compete in Virginia, Obama on Thursday was holding an event in Bristol, in the far western corner of the state, before headlining a rally at a 25,000-seat amphitheater in this burgeoning town near Manassas and just three miles from the site of two major Civil War battles, known as Bull Run to Northerners, Manassas to Southerners.
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Obama would boost his chances if he puts a Virginia Democrat on the ticket with him. Among the possibilities: Kaine, Mark Warner, Sen. Jim Webb. The three were campaigning with him Thursday.
Maximizing the black vote
Democrats say Obama's ability to bring new voters into the process gives him a chance to put states like Virginia, which is nearly 20 percent black, into play. They downplay any notion that the state — the base of the Confederacy where much of the war to end slavery was fought — will spurn a black man and note that Virginia was the nation's first state to elect a black governor, moderate Democrat Douglas Wilder in 1989.
Video: One-on-one with Barack Obama "Obama's going to maximize the black vote and it will probably offset the negative white vote," said Democratic Rep. Jim Moran, whose district is across the Potomac River from Washington. "The South is still unreconstructed in terms of race, but I think that Virginia is going to be the vanguard of that political reconstruction."
Republicans, in turn, acknowledge that Obama could benefit from high black turnout, but they say McCain — a Navy veteran and Vietnam War prisoner — can hold his own in the state where military veterans make up nearly 15 percent of the population. Republicans argue Obama is more liberal than recent Democratic winners in Virginia and say he won't persuade rural voters in an ideologically conservative state.
"He's not a moderate centrist Democrat," said Virginia Del. Chris Saxman, McCain's campaign co-chairman in Virginia. "Given who he is, John McCain is well positioned to carry Virginia."
In part, the path to victory for Democrats runs through the shopping centers, industrial parks and housing developments of northern Virginia, essentially down Lee Highway — the road that not only is named after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee but also is the path Union troops retreated upon from those battles.
Interviews with voters at a plaza near where Obama will speak Thursday suggest that while the Democrat has his work cut out for him, so does McCain, particularly among pivotal voters who don't claim either party.
"Confused," declared Rosilyn Dudley, 68, while visiting with two friends at a coffee shop. "I started out a real Obama supporter. Then all the negative stuff that came out about him started making me wonder. But McCain's temperament worries me. Sure, he has the experience, but I can't imagine him negotiating anything."
Sweating it out on a weight machine at the nearby gym, Anne Pound, 40, was just as conflicted. She said McCain seems too stubborn and too unwilling to admit mistakes. She huffed: "He's acting just like Bush." Still, she sounded just as concerned about Obama, saying: "He's never once said anything of substance. I have no idea what he wants to do."
At a bar-and-grill, the choice was easy for two men sipping whisky and smoking cigarettes.
In unison, they said: "McCain."
"McCain will take Virginia, no doubt about it," said Mike Prior, 53.
"Definitely," added Danny Kidwell, 54.
They exuded confidence. No wonder — for lifelong die-hard Republicans.
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