In "ground zero" state of Virginia, Obama has an edge

In this Feb. 13, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
President Obama
In this Feb. 13, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

(CBS News) President Obama has an edge over his presumed Republican rival Mitt Romney in the state of Virginia, according to a new poll -- a state both sides agree could end up being one of the closest races come November.

To keep his lead, however, Mr. Obama will have to work to keep intact the constituencies his won in 2008. It's no surprise then, that both the president and Romney are spending this week in Virginia, with Mr. Obama specifically appealing to one of the groups that helped him carry Virginia the first time around: students.

Among registered voters in Virginia, Mr. Obama leads Romney 51 percent to 44 percent, according to a Washington Post poll conducted April 28- May 2. The Post notes that Romney is doing no better against Mr. Obama than he was a year ago, even though he's now effectively won the Republican nomination.

Mr. Obama is trouncing Romney among black voters, 97 percent to 1 percent. He also has a solid lead among women, 56 percent to 38 percent. Among voters ages 18 to 29, Mr. Obama has a two-to-one lead -- however, a third of those voters aren't registered at their current address.

The president will try to rally those voters when he officially kicks off his reelection campaign with a pair of rallies on Saturday, one at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Today, Mr. Obama stops at a high school in Arlington, Virginia to speak about keeping student loan interest rates low.

While Mr. Obama was the first Democrat to win Virginia in four decades, Republicans have acknowledged taking the state back could be a challenge. On a conference call with reporters Thursday, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said Virginia and Ohio are competing to be "ground zero" in the race for the White House this year.

That said, Republican party of Virginia chairman Pat Mullins added that Virginia has had a change of heart since 2008.

"After all, the candidate who ran here last time is not the same man we see on the campaign trail today," he said. "He's been exposed for what he truly is, a cold calculating Chicago political operator. He used to talk about uniting the country, now he's dividing us. He talked about changing Washington, now he's embraced it all... Virginia deserves better."

Mullins pointed to the strong gains Republicans made in Virginia after Mr. Obama's election, winning the governor's office, control of the state Senate and three congressional seats.

"We've seen important victories every year since President Obama has been in office, because Virginians are rejecting his agenda, his one-size fits all policies and his desperate, disastrous politics," he said.

Virginia played a minor role in the Republican primary, but now that he is shifting into general election mode, Romney is giving the state his attention. He visited a small business in Chantilly, Virginia on Wednesday, where he compared Mr. Obama to President Jimmy Carter. On Thursday in Portsmouth, he slammed the president for his handling of the situation involving blind Chinese dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng.