GOP dominion threatened in Virginia

Fiore is a Times staff writer.

Bob Lawrence, a retired engineer, once counted on a majority of people in this state to vote just like him -- Republican. Presidential elections were rather uneventful affairs.

So it comes as something of a surprise that in recent weeks, volunteers canvassing for Democrat Barack Obama have knocked on the front door of Lawrence’s red brick home at least six times. He hasn’t seen anyone from the other side.

When an Obama ad comes on television -- which happens a lot -- Lawrence switches channels. He’s fed up with the automatic phone calls touting John McCain, whom he already voted for at his local firehouse, so enough already.

“I’ll be glad when this is over,” Lawrence, 76, said one day last week as he and his wife were preparing to take a Caribbean cruise, which came just in time for them to escape the October chill, not to mention the most aggressive and sweeping fight for the White House that Virginians can remember.


This reliably conservative state -- which George W. Bush ignored both times around and still won handily -- is a battleground for the first time in 44 years. Lyndon Johnson was the last Democrat to win here. But this year, strategists predict that if Obama takes Virginia with its 13 electoral votes, he takes the White House, possibly positioning the state at the epicenter of a historic election, the Florida or Ohio of 2008.

Foreign journalists are flying in from Australia, Japan and Venezuela, intrigued by the paradox that the onetime capital of the Confederacy could be key to electing the first African American president. A tour group from Finland chose to spend its time hunting for Obama supporters at a Civil War reenactment. (They found some.)

Modern Virginia has never seen this much action. Obama was here twice in four days; in between, GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin popped in. Nearly half a million new voters have registered. (Voters are not asked to declare a party when registering, so no one is sure who has the edge.) Lawn signs battle it out on block after suburban block. The line at the firehouse where Lawrence went to vote early was 25 people long.

An average of recent polls suggest Obama leads by 7 percentage points, but many here believe it could be closer -- nearly a third of Virginia voters call themselves independent.


Still, local Republicans recognize that Obama holds an edge that seemed unthinkable a year ago, and many have complained McCain took the state for granted. The Illinois senator and his running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, were here six times before McCain held his first Virginia rally, and now his campaign is scrambling to win what it thought it owned.

Obama has 50 offices across the state to 21 for the Arizona senator. At one point, Obama was outspending his rival in television ads more than 8 to 1, in some cases knocking out car dealerships as local TV’s biggest ad customer.

The contest seems to have permeated all levels of daily life. An omelet contest at the Silver Diner restaurants throughout Virginia pits the Obamalette against the McCainlette -- the former made with Chicago pizza ingredients and the latter Western-style barbecue.

For every Bob Lawrence who wishes it would all end, there is a Virginian soaking up the joys of political relevance in a state that has held a high opinion of itself ever since producing the vast majority of forefathers and early presidents.

“We supplied the founders, we have always considered ourselves important and have been stunned to discover in modern times that others did not. Suddenly, we’re important again,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia who, flooded with foreign interview requests, drew the line at Slovenian television.

The bellwether of the South for 150 years, Virginia could break a regional voting bloc the GOP has relied upon for decades.

It already took its place in history as the first to elect an African American governor -- L. Douglas Wilder in 1989 -- setting it apart from its neighboring states.

The recent change in Virginia’s thinking was no doubt spurred by the financial meltdown, but the wheels were in motion long before Wall Street collapsed. What turned Virginia from red to purple was a population explosion in recent years of young families and college-educated professionals. Their more liberal leanings helped produce a string of Democratic victories: two straight governor races, a U.S. Senate seat and one house of the Legislature.


Beckoned by a technology corridor and a manageable commute to Washington, the newcomers mostly settled in the suburbs of northern Virginia, particularly Fairfax County, where Lawrence lives. The southern end, long sustained by coal mines and farms, remained mostly rural.

Today you can’t go a mile without hitting traffic in the north, and in the south there are few good roads to bring in industry. Healthcare in the north is expensive; in the south it is scarce. The north is gaining population; the south is losing it. Democrats dominate one end; Republicans the other.

“Everywhere one looks in Virginia there is a yin and a yang, which in this election has set up a battleground,” said Robert Denton, professor of communications studies at Virginia Tech.

Tensions have flared. McCain’s brother, Joe, set off a to-do when he jokingly referred to Democratic-leaning Alexandria and Arlington as “communist country.” (The Republican candidate has his campaign headquarters and a condo in Arlington, which is also home to the Pentagon, the Iwo Jima memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, critics were quick to note.)

When a high-level McCain advisor referred to the southern part of the state as “the real Virginia,” people in the north took offense, a characterization Obama exploited.

Nowhere, perhaps, is the battle for votes more intense than in Loudoun County, about an hour outside Washington, the wealthiest and fastest-growing county in the nation.

In historic Leesburg, the county seat on the edge of a Civil War battlefield, an Obama rally drew about 35,000 supporters last week. The Republicans dispatched Palin to the region Monday.

“There is no doubt Republicans in many parts of the country are swimming against the tide right now . . . but those who predict the demise of the GOP in Loudoun County, I think, are writing the obituary prematurely,” said Glen Caroline, chairman of the Loudoun County Republican Committee.


He was driving his pickup with a load of 1,000 signs to a precinct captains’ meeting; demand is so high, he knew it would not be enough.

That was the yin. This was the yang: The night before, in a Leesburg storefront that serves as an Obama campaign office and calling bank, the signs were long gone, and there were more volunteers than phones.