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Obama Looks to Turn Virginia into Blue State

June 6, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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With Sen. Barack Obama's focus concentrated on Virginia early in the general election, many wonder if 2008 will be a year of new battleground states. Kwame Holman reports on the effort to get Virginia to back a Democrat for president for the first time in 44 years.
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KWAME HOLMAN: Barack Obama could have kicked off his general election campaign in the typically pivotal states of Ohio, Pennsylvania or Florida, but instead he chose Virginia, a point not lost on the commonwealth’s Democratic governor Tim Kaine.

GOV. TIM KAINE (D), Va.: Who would have thought that this? The opening day of the general election campaign in 2008, and the Democratic presidential nominee starts the campaign in the commonwealth of Virginia.

KWAME HOLMAN: That’s because the last time Virginia supported a Democratic presidential nominee was 1964, when it went for Lyndon Baines Johnson. Since then, the commonwealth has backed the Republican standard-bearer, often by wide margins.

In recent years, Virginia’s demographics have shifted, especially in the fast-growing northern suburbs, becoming wealthier, more diverse and younger. That, combined with the state’s significant African-American population, has helped to elect three Democrats to statewide office since 2001.

One of those is Kaine, who became governor in 2005. At last night’s rally in Prince William County, he said change hasn’t come easy to Virginia.

GOV. TIM KAINE: It was tough. It was a reliably red state. Presidential candidates wouldn’t come here. The Republicans didn’t need to, and the Democrats said, “Why bother?” But we’ve been making some change in Virginia, folks.

Obama rallies in Virginia

KWAME HOLMAN: Obama also was joined on stage by Virginia's Democratic senator, Jim Webb. Obama addressed a crowd of more than 10,000 in sweltering heat.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Ill.: I know it's a little hot. But that just means you're fired up.

KWAME HOLMAN: By early yesterday, word of Obama's visit had spread throughout the county. Some, like retiree Bill McLeod, a Democrat, welcomed the stop.

BILL MCLEOD, Democrat: I do want to see him. I respect him very highly, and I hope that he wins throughout it. We need him. There's no question we need him very badly.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, undecided voter Roger Simond said Obama was smart to appeal to Virginia's moderate voters.

ROGER SIMOND, JR., undecided voter: I'm keeping my mind open. And if you noticed just recently with Barack's speech the other night, the tone has completely changed in two days. Now, all of a sudden, there seems to be a more strategic reaching out to all types of people, not just to the Democrats.

Virginia won't be easy to win

KWAME HOLMAN: Others, such as Republican Jackie Martin, said they weren't sold on Obama.

JACKIE MARTIN, Republican: There's something about him that's not believable. And McCain, you know, he's not a very good speaker, but I think he's a fighter, you know, being in the Navy, being a POW like he was. And I really think he's in for the fight.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican strategist Alex Vogel, while acknowledging the battle for Virginia may be closer than in the past, said the shift in the state's demographics hasn't happened fast enough to benefit Democrats this time around.

ALEX VOGEL, Republican strategist: I would argue that, unlike some of the places out west, Arizona, Nevada, parts of Texas, which have had growth so fast that the entire state has literally turned over in the span of two to four years, where really it is a new battleground state, Virginia hasn't fundamentally changed.

KWAME HOLMAN: With 13 electoral votes at stake, one thing is certain: Virginia will be a target of both presidential candidates this year.