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A Tale Of Two Virginias

GENERIC virginia map George allen race election seal james webb
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BY CBSNews.com's Jennifer Hoar

It's the man who turned "macaca" into a household slur versus the man who told us a Naval Academy dorm is a "horny woman's dream."

The charm-challenged contenders, GOP Sen. George Allen and Democrat Jim Webb, have turned the hotly contested Virginia Senate race into the most closely watched congressional election in the nation.

There's been nary an issue in sight as the two political gladiators have mud-wrestled for advantage in a contest that could decide whether the Senate remains Republican or goes Democratic.

In the latest bizarre development, a liberal blogger says he was manhandled by Allen supporters for asking the Republican standard-bearer whether he spat at his first wife. (The first Mrs. Allen, for the record, says the allegation is a "baseless, cheap shot.")

Nevertheless, this is not a campaign that can be reduced to ad hominem attacks and other totally weird stuff. Despite the best efforts of the candidates and their dedicated staffs, substantive considerations are lurking just below the political waterline.

Not the least of these are demographic changes that have altered Virginia's political landscape. Northern Virginia, or "NoVA" as it's known colloquially, is crucial to the outcome of the Webb-Allen race. Fast-growing, urban and left-leaning, this blue state within a red state is home to about 30 percent of the Old Dominion's population.

"The blue part of the state is growing," says Dr. William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, because "a migration from the rest of Virginia and the U.S. is infusing the exurbs of Washington."

The influx of new residents has strengthened the Democrats. The number of people in Prince William and Loudon counties, for example, jumped by 24 percent and 50 percent, respectively, between 2000 and 2005.

What's more, the voters of these customarily conservative counties turned out for Democratic Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine in last year's race.

"That those two counties would support Democrats in a statewide race is very telling," said Jonathan Martin, a writer for The Hotline, an online politics journal.

The importance of Northern Virginia to Webb's candidacy was brought home in a Washington Post poll released in mid-October. Webb led Allen by a comfortable 56-42 percent margin in the geographically small region north of the Rappahannock River. But he trailed Allen by nearly 10 percentage points in the "old" Virginia.

"Turnout in Northern Virginia is very important to us," said Webb communications director Kristian Denny Todd.

Polling data shows that the outlook of voters in Northern Virginia is fairly close to that of voters nationally. NoVA voters, for example, view the Iraq war as not worth fighting by a nearly 2-1 margin, according to the Post poll.

Consequently, Webb's "message of change [about the war] resonates for them," Denny Todd said.

She also noted that the campaign has "hit on Allen's Bush association a bit more in NoVA" precisely because voters there are so conversant in national politics. She said are acutely aware of Republican-tinged scandals that have surfaced over the past year, from ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff's dealings with key GOP members to the recent Mark Foley page controversy.

Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams disputes the assertion that NoVA newcomers can be presumed to support Democrats.

"People who have moved to Northern Virginia are independent-minded voters," Wadhams said. He also argued that many of these "new" voters were already around when Allen ran for Senate and won in 2000.

Talk about the importance of Northern Virginia doesn't change the fact that most of the state remains a Republican stronghold. In the Post poll, Webb's 18-point lead among male voters in Northern Virginia becomes a 12-point deficit in southern Virginia.

The GOP does well in southern metropolitan areas like Roanoke, Harrisonburg and Charlottesville, in addition to the party's usual strong showing in rural areas. It's also worth noting that the state's congressional delegation is solidly Republican, with both senators and eight of 11 House members in the GOP column.

The outcome of the race will likely depend on turnout in the state's red and blue strongholds. A Webb win would suggest Virginia is on the way to becoming a competitive two-party state in the years to come. A Democratic presidential candidate hasn't carried Virginia since 1964.

By Jennifer Hoar