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Obama returns to key Virginia region hoping for '08 repeat

President Obama. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

(CBS News) In 2008, President Obama became the first Democratic candidate since 1964 to carry Virginia in a presidential election. This time around, the president's campaign is working hard to ensure that a second victory in the state doesn't slip out of his reach.

As part of that effort, Mr. Obama on Friday heads to the southeastern part of Virginia, the first stop in a two-day swing across the commonwealth, where he'll underline his commitment to middle-class voters and draw a stark contrast between himself and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

"Southeast Virginia is an important region in an important state. This is going to be a close election," said Frank Benenati, regional press secretary for the Obama campaign. "We are going to reach out to every single Virginian we can."

Despite Mr. Obama's relatively comfortable margin of victory over John McCain in Virginia in 2008 - he bested McCain 53 percent to 47 percent - the president will likely face a tougher challenge there this November. While a handful of recent polls give him an edge over Romney in the state, small towns and rural areas, where Mr. Obama did unexpectedly well in 2008, now present an opportunity for Republicans to make gains.

Virginia's southeastern Hampton Roads region, which includes Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Newport News and Hampton, is crucial territory for Mr. Obama.

(CBS News Radio White House correspondent Mark Knoller reports from Obama campaign trail in Virginia.)

"There are three big regions that matter in Virginia: Northern Virginia, which is substantially Democratic; the Richmond area, which is more substantially Republican; and Hampton Roads, which is in the middle," said Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and director of the UVA Center for Politics. "Hampton Roads tends to be the swing region. I think the Obama forces fear some erosion there."

"To win Virginia, a Democrat, any Democrat, has to at least hold his own in Hampton Roads," adds Democratic state Senator Creigh Deeds, who ran an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2009.

Deeds should know: He lost the region to Republican Bob McDonnell in 2009, and the governorship along with it.

Ramping up turnout

Many Democrats worry that low turnout, which dogged Deeds in 2009, will come back to haunt Mr. Obama in 2012, particularly when it comes to young people and minorities.  Whereas black voters comprised 20 percent of Virginia voters in 2008, that number had dropped to 15 percent just a year later.

According to CBS News Elections Director Anthony Salvanto, Deeds' loss in 2009 demonstrated that despite the president's big gains in 2008, Virginia is still a battleground state.

"Certainly the electorate in 2009 is not the same as it will be in the presidential race," he said, noting that overall turnout is expected to be much higher in a presidential election.

But re-energizing his young, black and minority supporters will likely be a key factor in Mr. Obama's success.

"He needs to generate a large turnout again among African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities, as well as young people," said Sabato. "You put all that together and it makes a lot of sense for him to visit the area repeatedly in November."

One factor at play in that equation is a new voter ID law passed in Virginia, which opponents argue will disproportionately impact some of those key voting groups Mr. Obama is trying to get to show up. The Obama campaign stresses its efforts at grassroots efforts aimed at educating voters about the new law, but its impact on the election remains an open question.

(Obama reflects on his first years in office and looks forward to second term in interview with CBS News' Charlie Rose.)

"We're not immune to the voter suppression tactics that the Republicans have been working throughout the country," said Deeds.

Making a play for the military vote

When Mr. Obama makes his case in Virginia Beach today, there's another demographic that will be high on the campaign's radar: retired and active military members, of which Hampton Roads boasts a high population.

"It's clearly a group that Obama needs to court once again," said Sabato. Polls with regard to this group, he said, are "all over" the place. And while he says Romney, as the Republican nominee, has a "natural appeal" among them, Obama has a few cards of his own he can play.

"Osama bin Laden and his generally successful foreign policy will come in there," said Sabato, also noting the president's policy on Afghanistan. "That's why he has to appeal to them."

Indeed, recent polling shows that despite a traditional Republican advantage among current and retired members of the military, the president may have recently made some inroads with the population: A May poll by Reuters/Ipsos showed Mr. Obama leading Romney nationally among veterans and their families by 7 percent.

The Obama campaign aims to make that a pattern.

"We're drawing a stark contrast between President Obama and Mitt Romney on veteran affairs," said Benenati. Pointing to Romney's opposition to bringing troops home from Iraq, as well as the fact that he at one point floated the idea of privatizing the veteran health care system (a proposal he later backed away from), Benenanti argues, "the contrast between the two couldn't be starker."

March to the finish line

Both candidates seem to understand the importance of winning Virginia. The Romney campaign, along with the state GOP and the RNC, recently made a major push in the state, and has so far opened more than 20 offices there. The candidate recently did a two-day stint campaigning there, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke on his behalf in Virginia Beach just a day before Obama was slated to arrive. 

Spending in the Hampton Roads media market alone has been enormous: Since April 10, political ad spending there has exceeded $3 million, according to an analysis by Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG).

A Romney victory in Virginia would be a huge boon to the campaign.

"Virginia would be a critical state for Romney to take," says Salvanto. "I think it's very important to him, I think it's one of a number of states he certainly could win, and it would a big boost to his chances if he did." 

But Democrats are gearing up for a fight.

"2008 was going to be easy compared to this year," said Deeds, of the president's upcoming battle in Virginia. "This setting, this context, is so different... It's going to be tough to break through, but President Obama did it in 2008 and there's no reason to think he can't do it again."

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