The two best indicators of which states the campaigns are serious about – time and money – tell the story.
Since wrapping up the Democratic nomination in June, Obama, his wife, Michelle, and his running mate Joe Biden have visited the commonwealth a combined 12 times. The candidate himself was in the Tidewater city of Newport News Saturday.
Obama is also plowing millions into Virginia, blanketing the airwaves with TV and radio ads, filling up mailboxes with leaflets and, along with the state party, operating 49 campaign offices.
Together, McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, have held just one campaign event in Virginia. And the campaign has taken its ads off the pricey Washington, D.C. network affiliates that reach into the entire swath of the Northern Virginia, the commonwealth’s most populous region.
“I think [McCain] needs to get here,” said Rep. Tom Davis, a longtime member of Congress who represents a Northern Virginia district. “I think they’ve got to pay more attention.”
Davis predicted McCain would ultimately take Virginia because he has appeal to the center-right independents that usually swing statewide races and because Obama is less moderate than such successful Democratic figures as former Gov. Mark Warner and Sen. James Webb.
“Obama is not a Virginia Democrat,” Davis said.
But the former National Republican Congressional Committee chair, who is retiring this year, said because of the party’s troubled brand and Obama’s effort to increase African-American turnout, the Virginia race now stands even.
“The economy hurts us across the board and Obama is really running hard and putting more resources here than McCain – he’s got the money.”
Asked if he thought McCain was taking the state seriously enough, Davis paused before saying: “I think they’re going to.”
“It’s very, very tight,” agreed former governor and Senator George Allen. “Obviously Democrats have spent a lot of time here.”
“We are a true battleground state,” Allen said twice.
Rep. Eric Cantor, a Richmond-area Republican and member of the House GOP leadership who won some veep chatter this summer, agreed that Virginia would be tight.
“I think it is very competitive,” Cantor said.
Asked if McCain needed to return, he was judicious: “It’s up to them to allocate his time. We’re going to do everything we can for him.”
But discussing the boost Sarah Palin had given to the party’s grassroots, Cantor offered a standing invitation without being asked: “Anytime they want to send Gov. Palin in, we’ll welcome her with open arms.”
Longtime Virginia operatives are more outspoken, grumbling that McCain is now having to play catch up.
“He didn't take threat seriously soon enough,” said one Richmond-based GOP strategist in the state, noting that McCain had the nomination wrapped up in early March but didn’t have staff or infrastructure in Virginia until July. “One public visit since securing the nomination and I can’t tell you one significant surrogate who has come.”
It’s puzzling because McCain’s campaign is based in Arlington, Va., and the senator lives there when he’s at his headquarters or across the river in his Senate office. Yet whenever he’s back in the area he never ventures beyond the office and condo-filled Crystl City neighborhood to more politically competitive communities nearby where he could get extensive local media coverage by just dropping by a diner.
“He, not she, needs to return to northern Virginia,” said a veteran GOP operative from the region about the GOP ticket. “That's where he needs to perform, and where he can. He can get a lot of Mark Warner voters, but he needs to show the ticket-splitting centrists in voter-rich Fairfax and Loudoun [counties] some love and understanding.”
McCain’s top aide for the mid-Atlantic region, Trey Walker, held a conference call for party leaders on Friday and was pressed as to why McCain and Palin hadn’t been back to Virginia since their joint visit to Fairfax City last month.
“One of the hardest things we have to do is getting more folks to take a national view,” Walker told Politico, when told about concerns that the campaign wasn’t devoting enough attention to Virginia.
“It’s real simple – we’re pushing Obama in Pennsylvania and they’re pushing us in Virginia. We are engaged in a game of electoral chicken right now and we’ll see who blinks first.”
When it comes to Virginia, McCain and the GOP appear to be blinking.
Walker would only tell Politico that the GOP ticket would be back in Virginia “soon,” but other Republican sources say an announcement about a return visit will come this week.
McCain is also opening 12 more offices in the commonwealth and bringing on more staff.
And the independent expenditure arm of the RNC--which can't coordinate with the McCain campaign but which closely tracks state polling--last week began to broadcast TV ads for the first time in Virginia.
The RNC's move to go up on the air there tracks a similar move in Indiana, another state that hasn't gone Democratic since Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide win, and reflects the challenge facing the party: they're having to invest money to broaden their defenses in states that have until recently been safely red.
Beyond the financial implications of that approach, the GOP ticket is confronting new demands on its time. The McCain campaign would prefer to have the Arizona senator and Alaska governor campaign together, but they are now being forced to protect more states so they may have to spend more time apart.
It's a akin to a campaign version of whack-a-mole, where finite time and money is being spread across the landscape to defend against sudden and unexpected Democratic surges on GOP turf.
"We'd be happy if they spent the next 30 days in Virginia," Allen said. "But it's a big country and there are a lot of battleground states."
In the Old Dominion, though, the renewed attention can't come soon enough for Republicans, who are already despondent about the state of their party.
Part of McCain’s challenge in the state is out of his hands. The Virginia GOP is at a low ebb, lacking an obvious statewide leader as they had in the 1990s with former Governors Allen and Jim Gilmore. The party has lost consecutive gubernatorial races in 2001 and 2005 followed by Allen’s Senate seat in 2006. The other Senate seat, held by retiring Sen. John Warner, is almost certain to be won next month by former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner over Gilmore.
“We don’t have anybody with the kind of cache who can tell [the McCain campaign] that we need them here,” lamented one prominent Virginia Republican who asked for anonymity to candidly discuss the presidential race.
The party’s problems were on all-too-familiar display in a Saturday conference call organized by the campaign. The plan was to have Sen. Warner, the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, counter-program Obama’s visit to the shipbuilding city of Newport News.
But the news of the call came when Warner declined to endorse Gilmore’s Senate bid, suggested he might bac Warner and reminded reporters of his previous independence.
“I’m watching that race, following the positions of the two candidates,” Warner said. “There have been occasions when I have supported Democratic candidates. … But I’m not there yet.”
The popular five-term senator refused to endorse conservative Republicans running for statewide office in 1993 and 1994, enabling Democrats to win both times.
Virginia Republicans are concerned that Mark Warner’s winning margin – he leads Gilmore by well over 20 percentage points in every survey – could offer some reverse coattails to Obama.
Then there is Obama’s effort to spike core Democratic turnout, about 20% of the population in Virginia.
Over 300,000 new voters have been registered this year, with the highest percentage increase in heavily-black Richmond. Other localities with increased registration are liberal-to-moderate Alexandria and Fairfax.
“Obama wants to run up the margin in northern Virginia, increase black turnout and maximize the college towns,” Davis explained.
Virginia Republicans all express public optimism that McCain will ultimately pull out a win there.
“I’m very confident that we will win Virginia,” said Cantor, noting that presidential races bring out a larger turnout than the commonwealth’s off-year gubernatorial races.
In this vein, Allen pointed out that the military-heavy state – home to the Pentagon and the world’s largest naval base – behaves differently in presidential years.
“They’re voting for a commander-in-chief, not a governor,” Allen said of the troops, many of whom are deployed and are missed in polling.
It’s precisely that element which has kept Virginia in Republican hands every four years, even when Southern Democrats were on the top of the Democratic ticket.
“The disproportionate presence of national security voters among independents in Virginia is what has kept the state in the GOP column in presidential contests even as party fortunes have ebbed and flowed between Republicans and Democrats in state elections,” said Frank Atkinson, a longtime Virginia Republican and author of two books on the commonwealth’s political history.
But Atkinson offered a cautionary note.
“It is a marginal advantage, though, not an insurmountable one.”
If Virginia does flip, Davis said, it will be an indicator of a commanding Democratic win.
"Virginia won't be Obama's 270th electoral vote."