A culture clash over Obama in Virginia
Roughly one third of Virginia's population is here in the northern part of the state, which powered Mr. Obama's seven-point victory statewide four years ago. (He won Fairfax County by 22 percentage points.) The area is something of a nightmare for Romney: There has been an increase in both the Asian and Hispanic population as well as new residents who have settled here from Washington, D.C., and other urban areas. And because many residents here work for the federal government, Romney's calls to shrink the government land with a thud.
"The Virginia economy is so linked to the federal government," said one Virginia Democratic operative. "When you look at the other side and their approach, which is all cuts, who gets hit? We do."
African-Americans, women and the military vote
Mr. Obama's victory four years ago would not have happened without strong turnout from African-American voters, who make up about one-fifth of the Virginia population. (Just asked Creigh Deeds, the 2009 Democratic gubernatorial candidate who lost the race to Republican Bob McDonnell in part because he couldn't mobilize the African-American vote.) Many of the state's African-American voters are clustered in Richmond and in the Norfolk/Hampton/Virginia Beach area on the state's southeastern seaboard, where the Obama campaign has been focused on engaging voters and ensuring they are registered to vote.
The southeastern seaboard is also home to a significant military presence - Norfolk boasts the biggest Navy base in the world, and there are Air Force, Marine and Army bases in the region as well - and there Romney sees an opening. Romney, who introduced his running mate to the world in front of a battleship in Norfolk back in August, has been tying the president to "sequestration," the planned $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts, half from the defense budget, set to kick in at the end of the year if Congress can't agree to an alternative.
The plan passed with support from Congressional Republicans - and was a response to a Republican-driven budget standoff - but Romney nonetheless lays it at the feet of the president, pointing to reporting from Bob Woodward that the idea originated in the White House. While Mr. Obama is seeking to reduce the defense budget, Romney wants to expand it, a message that plays well with defense contractors in Norfolk and elsewhere in the state.
"I will not cut our military. I will maintain our military commitment," Romney said during a campaign stop in Virginia Beach earlier this month. He said sequestration is "unthinkable to Virginia, to our employment needs, but it's also unthinkable to the ability and the commitment of America to maintain our liberty." George Allen, the Republican Senate candidate in Virginia, has also embraced this message.
For Romney, the path to a Virginia victory involves winning military voters and those with ties to the defense industry, blowing the president out in the 20 percent of the state that is rural (he's hoping to drive turnout in southwestern Virginia by attacking Mr. Obama for what Republicans call the Obama administration's "war on coal"), and trying to keep Mr. Obama from too big a win among Northern Virginia and minority voters. But even that might not be enough if he can't close the gap among women: The most recent CBS News poll showed Mr. Obama with a 14-point advantage among women in Virginia, which goes a long way toward explaining why all four of the introductory speakers at a Romney campaign stop in Northern Virginia two weeks ago were women.
As part of an effort to maintain its edge among women, Mr. Obama's campaign earlier this month dispatched first lady Michelle Obama to talk to campaign workers in Prince William County, a swing area that is home to many of the Washington, D.C., "exerbs" that could decide the election.
"What Democrats have to do is drive up the vote in the urban areas, but where it's going to be won or lost is in those exurban counties," said the Democratic operative in Virginia, who is an adviser to Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine. "Exurban women decide this election in Virginia at the end of the day." The operative said the Democratic edge among women in the state is due in part to a Republican proposal that would have required a transvaginal ultrasound prior to an abortion, which was ultimately watered down.
Also working against Romney is the fact that Virginia has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, at 5.9 percent. "If Obama can't win Virginia, I don't think he's going to win reelection," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, pointing to that figure. "He's got to be able to sell it."
The big question for the president - one that may decide the election - is whether he can sell it well enough that his supporters at least come close to the unprecedented turnout of four years ago. Back in Appomattox, said newspaper editor Marvin Hamlett, the enthusiasm is certainly there on the other side.
"The disdain and damn near hatred for Obama," he said, "is going to motivate a lot of people to go to the polls."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of Appomattox, Va., which is west of Richmond.
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