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In Republican Stronghold of Va., Democrats Make Inroads

September 12, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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In the second in a series of reports on the election battleground of Virginia, Jeffrey Brown takes a look at the Hampton Roads area in the southeastern part of the commonwealth, a traditionally Republican stronghold.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the second of Jeffrey Brown’s reports on the battleground state of Virginia. The first, earlier this week, was on demographic changes in Northern Virginia.

Tonight, the fight in Hampton Roads on the state’s southeastern coast.

A note: The interviews here were done before Sarah Palin’s appearances on ABC News.

JEFFREY BROWN: At Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott’s annual Labor Day picnic in Newport News, Virginia, it used to be hard to gather party officeholders who had won statewide positions. There weren’t many. This year, though, the photo-op was crowded, with Senator Jim Webb, Governor Tim Kaine, and former Governor and now Senate candidate Mark Warner.

REP. BOBBY SCOTT (D), VIRGINIA: We could elect Barack Obama the next president of the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Scott, whose district is more than 56 percent African-American, says the same issues that helped them get elected will help Barack Obama, even though this state that hasn’t gone for a Democratic presidential candidate in 44 years.

REP. BOBBY SCOTT: Health care, education, crime policy, particularly the budget, the war, there’s a different vision for America articulated by the two candidates. Once people understand the real difference, they will get out to vote. We have to make sure they’re registered, but I think they will get out to vote if they are registered.

JEFFREY BROWN: One congressional district over, at the Virginia Beach campaign headquarters of Republican Congresswoman Thelma Drake, they were just as certain that this mostly suburban district, with a large military and social conservative presence, will give its support to John McCain.

REP. THELMA DRAKE (R), Virginia: People in Virginia, military included, look at, what are the issues? Who do I think best reflects my value system? Who’s going to keep this nation safe and strong? Who’s going to keep our taxes as low as possible? Who’s going to grow our economy? And, in the end, that’s Senator John McCain.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the world’s largest natural harbors helped create and then define the sprawling region called Hampton Roads, from the colony at Jamestown, not far from here, to numerous naval and other military bases. Today, Hampton Roads is a key voting region in one of this election’s battleground states.

CATHY LEWIS, Radio Talk Show Host: David is on the line from Williamsburg.

Hi, David, you are on the air.

CALLER: I just have a comment about the different sort of standards that the two parties are held to.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cathy Lewis is a veteran political reporter for WHRO, Hampton Roads’ public broadcasting station. On her daily radio call-in show, she says she’s getting a sense of the strong presidential campaign passions aroused in this region of about 1.6 million.

CATHY LEWIS: Traditionally, it’s Republican.

What’s been interesting about this race is that it seems that this will very much be a battleground place in the commonwealth, because the polling data that’s coming out seems to suggest that this is a very, very close race in this region. And I have heard a lot of people suggest that it may turn, Virginia may turn, one way or the other, on this region. And that would be pretty interesting.

Area undergoing political awakening

Cathy Lewis
I don't think [race] been quite the factor that I thought it might have been coming into it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Interesting even at street level, one called Montgomery Place, to be precise.

WOMAN: Hi, guys. How you doing?

JEFFREY BROWN: Kenny Golden, chair of the Virginia Beach Republican Party, lives on this cul-de-sac, along with other supporters of John McCain, but so do a number of Obama supporters.

And, on a recent day, neighbors gathered to share their views with us.

KENNY GOLDEN, Chairman, Virginia Beach Republican Party: Do you think for one minute, if John McCain had won in 2000, that we would be in the deficit we are now? He would have used his veto pen in the first four years, unlike our current president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marcia Kull, a Democrat, sees a different John McCain.

MARCIA KULL, Democrat: What I'm looking for in a candidate is really intellectual honesty. When John McCain ran in 2000, I was absolutely interested in him. But what I have seen in this election is an absolute morphing away from that, and almost a prostituting to the -- to the electorate. He thinks he will take the women vote because he nominated a woman.

JEFFREY BROWN: But McCain will get the vote of retired Naval Commander Francie Sidor Golden, and Sarah Palin made a difference.

FRANCIE SIDOR GOLDEN, McCain Supporter: I remember watching it at the kitchen table and seeing her accept that nomination, and I got emotional. I felt I may be looking at the next president of the United States. Immediately, my friends, all of them, felt this shot in the arm.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two neighbors debated Barack Obama's tax policies.

TERRY LISKEY, McCain Supporter: I get to meet with the owners of companies on a regular basis. And everyone is very concerned that Obama's going to raise taxes for small businesses.

GARY MAHER, Obama Supporter: It just seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding about who Obama is. How people can go from he's going to raise our taxes to the facts that he's actually going to be trying to cut taxes for 95 percent of the people, I think -- I don't understand how that can -- how people can miss those things.

JEFFREY BROWN: People we talked to in this region, black and white, insisted that Barack Obama's race would not be a negative factor here. Virginia, many pointed out, was the first state in the nation to elect a black governor, Doug Wilder, in 1990.

CATHY LEWIS: I don't think it's been quite the factor that I thought it might have been coming into it, considering the fact that this was a -- you know, in Norfolk, it was a city that closed its schools 50 years ago, rather than comply with court-ordered integration.

JEFFREY BROWN: You thought it might be a negative -- I mean, more of a negative?

CATHY LEWIS: I certainly did.

JEFFREY BROWN: The African-American vote is hugely important to Obama in this area. And the campaign is targeting it and young people, another group that in the past hasn't turned out in large numbers.

MOSES WILSON, Students For Obama: I think Virginia is one of the best organized states out here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Moses Wilson, a Hampton University senior, is state coordinator of Students for Obama, and he's going hard after every vote.

MOSES WILSON: Are you all registered to vote?

Everybody is game. You know, nobody's walking around with a sign that says "I'm a registered voter" on their forehead or anything like that. So, everybody's game. You just kind of have to boost yourself up, give yourself some confidence, like, hey, go talk to them. They don't look like that want to be talked to, but go talk to them because, you know, you never know.

JEFFREY BROWN: According to state records, about 250,000 new voters have registered in Virginia already this year. And, in the month of August, 40 percent of those were 25 and under. The state doesn't register by party, but Wilson is confident that the tide is running his way.

MOSES WILSON: When the registrar tells you that they have run out of applications to register to vote, I think that's a good sign.

Religious, military vote in play

Pat Robertson
Christian Broadcasting Network
[I]n the last couple of weeks, it's been a sea swell, a sea change, in favor of the Republican ticket. Selecting Governor Sarah Palin has just been a brilliant stroke on his part.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the Republicans are also now clearly roused -- social and religious conservatives most of all -- by the choice of Sarah Palin. And that, says Reverend Pat Robertson, may tip the balance in Virginia.

PAT ROBERTSON, Host, "The 700 Club": A couple weeks ago, I would have said it probably is in play, but not any longer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robertson, whose Christian Broadcasting Network is headquartered on the campus of Regent University in Virginia Beach, once heard himself referred to by John McCain as an agent of intolerance. But that was then.

PAT ROBERTSON: He came down here back some years ago, and went after me, and it cost him the evangelical vote. And he lost the Super Tuesday primary as a result.



JEFFREY BROWN: Well, was there a fear this time that the conservative base would just sit on its hands?

PAT ROBERTSON: Oh, absolutely. I think there was just very minimal enthusiasm for McCain in those days. But, in all seriousness, in the last couple of weeks, it's been a sea swell, a sea change, in favor of the Republican ticket. Selecting Governor Sarah Palin has just been a brilliant stroke on his part.

JEFFREY BROWN: If there's one area of agreement between the two campaigns when it comes to Hampton Roads, it's that the military vote will be crucial. Thousands of active-duty personnel are based in this area. One in every 10 Virginians is a veteran, and many live here.

At WHRO, Cathy Lewis hears every day from vets, and she thinks the military vote is up for grabs.

CATHY LEWIS: I never heard from people who said, boy, you know, I voted as a Republican for years, and I'm in the military, and now I'm really thinking of making a different choice. I have never heard that before. I have never heard from the number of veterans, the numbers of people who are saying, I'm getting out. I can't take these extended tours, that sort of thing. We have never -- we have never heard that before.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Obama campaign is making a strong pitch to military families caught up in multiple deployments to Iraq. Michelle Obama visited Norfolk recently.

Amanda McBreen, wife of a Marine lieutenant colonel, was at that gathering and at an Obama campaign event for veterans last week in Hampton.

Vivian Greentree herself served in the Navy. Her husband remains on active duty overseas.

AMANDA MCBREEN, Blue Star Families for Obama: We have no problem with the military being used. That's what we're for. We have significant, really, differences of opinion in us being used inappropriately or on a whim.

This is the first time ever that spouses and family members have stood up and said, no, we're not going to take it anymore. And we formed this group, Blue Star Families for Obama. And we're reaching out to say, you can come out of the closet. It's OK.

VIVIAN GREENTREE, Blue Star Families for Obama: You don't have to use hand signals.

AMANDA MCBREEN: You don't have to -- yes, you don't have to say, I'm voting Democrat.

VIVIAN GREENTREE: We respect John McCain for his service. I respect anyone that serves and wants to, you know, give that volunteerism, but that does not translate to my vote for the future.

McCain still strong in area

Hal Roesch
State Commander, VFW
The biggest thing, talking to fellow veterans, not just VFWs, you know, John McCain's one of us.

JEFFREY BROWN: But at the nearby Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Phoebus that same evening, John McCain's service, along with a sense that he would best support a range of veterans' issues, was a key factor in determining votes.

HAL ROESCH, State Commander, Veterans of Foreign Wars: The biggest thing, talking to fellow veterans, not just VFWs, you know, John McCain's one of us. He's been there, a POW. He knows what it takes to be in the military.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hal Roesch served in the Air Force, and is now state VFW commander for Virginia.

Does it require having been there to serve in that leadership role?

HAL ROESCH: To me, yes. I like knowing that somebody's there and have done that.

JEFFREY BROWN: You think the same?

CHIEF STAFF SERGEANT CINDY ANDERSON, U.S. Air Force: Yes, you can -- he or she can understand where we're coming from and why we feel that our issues are different than just the civilian world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Roesch also supports John McCain's stance on the Iraq war.

HAL ROESCH: Obviously, the surge has -- has definitely worked over there. I think -- I think we did the right thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Air Force Chief Staff Sergeant Cindy Anderson, the commander of this VFW post, agrees with this, too, but wasn't sure how it would affect the overall military vote in Hampton Roads.

CINDY ANDERSON: It could go either way. I mean, most of them do like McCain, but there's probably some that don't like the way the current administration's going. So, maybe I will just swing, you know, go the other way, even though they don't really care for his ticket. So, it -- I don't know -- it would be hard to really guess.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the guessing game in Virginia's gathering spots and streets will end soon enough, with the final sprint toward November 4 now under way.

MAN: We're best friends 364 days a year.

JEFFREY BROWN: And many voters who still haven't made up their minds can just turn to a neighbor for a strong opinion, one way or the other.