Many textile, tobacco and furniture jobs -- and their middle-class wages -- have vanished from southern Virginia, leaving this small city with an unemployment rate that is double the nation’s.
At a town hall meeting here Wednesday, the ailing economy was Barack Obama’s focus as he pursued votes in a battleground state that hasn’t supported a Democrat for president in more than four decades. Under President Clinton, Obama told the audience, incomes rose $6,000 per family, and under President Bush, they fell $1,000.
“That tells the story of American families everywhere,” said the Illinois senator, who is the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. “When suddenly, not only are you feeling more insecure with your job, you can’t get rising wages or rising incomes. And the cost of everything from gas to food to healthcare to trying to send your children to college keeps on skyrocketing.”
Obama was on the second day of a three-day swing through three Southern states he hopes to color blue in November: Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. He plans to devote two days to Virginia in the week before the Democratic National Convention starts, an indication of his commitment to a state he believes he can win.
“This is absolutely unprecedented in modern times,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “It’s in the realm of possibility.”
The Democratic ticket fell far short of winning Virginia in 2004, losing it to President Bush by eight percentage points. Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts lost North Carolina by 14 points, even though his running mate, John Edwards, was the state’s Democratic senator. But recent polls show this year’s race is a dead heat in Virginia, while Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, leads slightly in North Carolina.
In Martinsville, home to a NASCAR speedway, Obama spoke to an audience of about 350 people in a motor sports garage at Patrick Henry Community College. Many of the loudest cheers went to former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who is running for U.S. Senate and will be the keynote speaker at next week’s Democratic convention.
Obama later packed about 2,200 people into a high school gym in Lynchburg, in central Virginia, leaving another 200 outside. He called for a $1,000 tax break for most wage earners, expanded healthcare coverage and incentives for alternative energy. His remarks drew thunderous cheers, especially when he emphasized the nation’s economic struggles.
“When you find out that you lost your healthcare, your pension or you never had it, it turns out you’re not the only one,” he said. “Millions of Americans have been going through that same loss of security.”
Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the Democrat believes he can tip some red states, including Virginia and North Carolina, because the demographics have shifted.
“These are all states that have rapidly growing populations,” he said. “These tend to be folks that relocate here, they tend to be younger voters, also folks who obviously based on their lifestyle would be open to the prescription for change Sen. Obama is offering.”
The McCain campaign scoffed. “Barack Obama can spend all the money in the world in some of these Republican-leaning states, but he will still be the most inexperienced presidential candidate in the modern era and he will still have the most liberal record in the United States Senate,” campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said. “Those are two things he can’t escape.”
But the Obama campaign said it was serious about competing in those states, and his aides pointed to their ground operation as a show of their commitment.
In North Carolina, Obama has spent at least $1.6 million on advertising and has opened 16 field offices. The last time the state supported a Democratic presidential candidate was in 1976, when it voted for Jimmy Carter, the governor of neighboring Georgia.
Obama spokeswoman Susan Lagana said the state’s job losses, coupled with Obama’s support for the farm bill and his pledge to renegotiate trade agreements, would help him.
Bringing in new voters is vital, she said, noting the campaign has registered tens of thousands of voters at gas stations and community events.
Obama held a town hall meeting Tuesday night in Raleigh that resembled a rock concert, with vendors selling T-shirts outside and women cheering when Obama took off his suit jacket. But even some Obama stalwarts are skeptical about his chances in the state.
Mary Crawley, 60, of Raleigh is drawn to Obama’s positions on education and healthcare. But she doubts many of her neighbors feel the same way.
“He is more liberal than a lot of the state,” said Crawley, who is a teacher. “It’s going to be a very difficult race for him in North Carolina.”
In Virginia, the campaign has spent at least $2.7 million on ads, opened 33 field offices and brought in Mitch Stewart, the organizer who helped Obama capture an impressive victory in the Iowa caucuses. The state has not supported a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, when President Johnson trounced Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz).
“We do see this as winnable state,” said Kevin Griffis, an Obama spokesman in Virginia. But he admitted that the campaign was expecting “this to be an extremely close race.”
The campaign is counting on Obama’s economic populism to win over voters like Timmy Price, 48, who has been out of work ever since he lost his job at a furniture plant more than a year ago.
“He can’t make any promises that are going to help us tomorrow,” said Price, who voted for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary. “It’s going to be a long time coming out of this.”
Mehta reported from North Carolina, Silverstein from Virginia.