A culture clash over Obama in Virginia

CBS News/Brian Montopoli

(CBS News) APPOMATTOX, Va. - Life moves slowly in Appomattox, a small Southern town two hours west of Richmond that's best known as the place where the Civil War came to an end 147 years ago. The biggest changes over the past 40 years or so have been an increase from zero traffic lights to five - the old timers have taken to complaining about the traffic - the closure of a furniture manufacturing plant that took with it 1,000 jobs, and the arrival of a branch of the Museum of the Confederacy.

"The town is pretty much, save for some cosmetics here and there, pretty much the same," said Ronald Spiggle, a big man with a strong southern drawl who served as mayor for 28 years and seems to know just about everyone in town.

But Virginia - to the consternation of many here - is not the same. Indeed, this crucial swing state is going through something of an identity crisis, one driven by a population explosion in Northern Virginia's Washington, D.C., suburbs, which helped turn Virginia blue four years ago for the first time since 1964. "There's a culture clash between this area and Northern Virginia," said Marvin Hamlett, the editor of the local paper here, the Times-Virginian. "They're a different culture, and sometimes they clash with the cultures down here."

Two-thirds of the voters in Appomattox County backed John McCain in 2008, and there's little doubt that President Obama won't win the county this time around, either. William Slagle, a Vietnam veteran who retired from a job in the paper industry, is incredulous over what he says is a lack of understanding among people who back the president about the harm caused by overregulation. He points to those in Northern Virginia who work for the federal government.

"I feel like so many people who work in government have no idea how wealth is generated," he said. Slagle acknowledges that Mitt Romney, with his private equity background and northeastern roots, isn't an obvious cultural match with Appomattox, but he said that doesn't matter.

"Given the choice," he said, "there is no cultural issue."

Still, Romney's lack of an obvious connection to this community has created an opening for a certain type of candidate - and, to the frustration of the Republican Party, that very type of candidate is on the ballot in Virginia. His name is Virgil Goode, and he represented the 5th Congressional District, where Appomattox is located, as a Republican from 1997 through 2009. After losing his re-election bid in 2008, Goode is now running for president as a member of the Constitution Party, and he's on the ballot in Virginia despite the best efforts of Republicans to keep him off.

Rural voters here like Goode because of his "southern hospitality," said Hamlett, the newspaper editor, who says they appreciate the fact that just about anyone can call Goode's office and the candidate will pick up the phone and start chatting in his deep southern drawl. Hamlett predicts that Goode could get up to 5 percent of the vote statewide, with most of the votes coming here in the 5th district; a recent Washington Post poll showed Goode with 2 percent support statewide. In a tight race, that could be enough to throw the state to the president. And winning Virginia could well win Mr. Obama the presidency.

CBS News estimatesthat the president has 237 electoral votes at least leaning his way out of the 270 he needs. If he wins Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, and Virginia, with its 13 electoral votes, he could lose every other battleground and still take the presidency. A combination of Virginia and Ohio would put the president within two electoral votes of the presidency, requiring him to win only one other battleground state even if he loses Florida.

A Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times surveyreleased last week showed Mr. Obama leading by four points in Virginia. Underscoring the importance of the state, both the president and GOP vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan have campaigned here in the past week, and Vice President Joe Biden will be in Chesterfield, outside of Richmond, on Tuesday.

The New Virginia

The H Mart Asian grocery store in the Northern Virginia town of Falls Church, where Korean words appear in neon in the window, may only be about a three-and-a-half hour drive north from Appomattox. But it feels like an entirely different world.

Asian-Americans now account for more than 5 percent of Virginia's population, and the voting bloc is growing in size and influence. That's especially true in Northern Virginia, where a group of Asian-American leaders have formed a group to increase Asian-American engagement in politics, which has been low compared to whites and African-Americans. (On Friday, they held a pan-Asian candidates forum for Virginia House and Senate candidates.) In Fairfax County, outside of Washington, more than 17 percent of the population is Asian. 

Asian-Americans lean Democratic overall, though the population, which includes people from China, Korea, Vietnam, India and the Philippines, is diverse. (According to Dong Xiang of New Tang Dynasty Television, who moderated Friday's forum, the Vietnamese are the most Republican-leaning Asian population.) The candidates are starting to recognize the importance of the Asian-American population: Earlier this month, Romney invited three Asian-American women to speak at a rally in Fairfax.

In the H Mart parking lot in Falls Church, amid a low-level roar from nearby construction work, Yunyan Sheng of Fairfax said she planned to back the president. "I can feel that he cares about the citizens," she said. But a woman named Sun, who would give only her first name, said she had yet to decide.

"It sounds like he's always saying things are getting better," she says of the president, "but real life - I still see a lot of my friends, business is not going well. Real life, you really don't see that much change, you know?"