Why the New Virginia Is Leaning Toward Obama

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Gary Knapp / Getty

Democratic presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama campaigns in Newport News, Virginia.

The national headquarters of John McCain's campaign are in northern Virginia, near the condo where he stays when he is working across the river in Washington. But McCain didn't get around to actually campaigning in the most pivotal part of this pivotal state — exurban Prince William County — until the weekend of Oct. 18. That's when he realized he was running about 10 points behind in a state that hasn't voted Democratic since 1964.

That pretty much sums up the entire race with just a week remaining: McCain is having to spend what little money and time he has left to defend the ground he thought he had locked up months ago. In Prince William County, about 30 miles south of Washington, he told a crowd of around 10,000 that electing Barack Obama would bring a new wave of socialism to the U.S. "America didn't become the greatest nation on earth by giving our money to the government to 'spread the wealth around,'" he said outside the county government headquarters in Woodbridge. "In this country, we believe in spreading opportunity." Leaving the rally, supporters handed out black bumper stickers with the word change written in red letters, the c in the shape of a U.S.S.R.-era sickle and hammer.

Virginia has become a make-or-break state for McCain, and Prince William County is its red-hot center. The site of the first and second battles of Bull Run more than 140 years ago, it now marks a new Mason-Dixon Line on the electoral map: a midpoint between the largely blue-leaning industrialized North that stretches up to Maine and the agrarian, conservative South. The western part of Prince William is old Virginia, rural horse country dotted with estates and polo fields. This end of the county helps make it the ninth richest in the U.S.; if the whole region were so wealthy, McCain would have less to worry about. But as you head east toward Washington, the antebellum mansions turn into McMansions, then give way to middle-class row houses whose shiny blue roofs gleam through the trees from Prince William Highway like giant Lego plantations.

On the other side of the tracks — literally Amtrak's line from Washington to Richmond — the county's eastern corridor is one of the fastest-growing areas in the state, home to a Latino population that has swelled from about 5% of the population in 1990 to approximately 20% in 2007. Along the Occoquan and Potomac rivers, the state's northern and eastern borders, historic black neighborhoods argue for space with new developments: golf courses, strip malls, gated communities, retirement villages — many that stand half finished, caught off guard by the subprime crisis. Such bedroom communities have been the worst hit in the state by the economic downturn; before the market plunge, high gas prices and highway congestion topped the list of concerns for those commuting to Washington or the northern Virginia cities of Arlington and Alexandria. This is the new face of Virginia — and the South — one where white working-class voters are being replaced by booming Hispanic and Asian populations and white college students outnumber white seniors 21% to 13%, according to a new Brookings Institution study.

All those new voters moving into Prince William have helped make the once reliably Republican district a swing county and the linchpin for Democratic statewide victories. The county voted 52% for President Bush in 2000 and 53% in 2004. But in 2005, Prince William residents helped elect Tim Kaine, a Democrat, governor with 50% of the ballots and the next year voted in nearly identical numbers to put Democrat Jim Webb in the Senate. "If Democrats split the vote in Prince William and win big in the northern counties, they win the state," says Mike May, a Republican Prince William County supervisor.

Even Republicans who didn't vote for Webb in 2006 are looking at Democrats this year. Karen Krivo, a 41-year-old mother of two who until now never considered voting for a Democrat for any office, is fed up. The high price of gasoline has made commuting the 30 miles into Washington impossible for some, and the housing crisis has glutted the once booming market. "It's a vote against President Bush and the Republican Congress's policies," she says. "I know we need to change, and Barack Obama provides that change."

McCain has also been forced to quell disgruntlement among rank-and-file Republicans over immigration. After an increase in gang activity, the board of county supervisors took the controversial step of checking the immigration status of every person arrested, irrespective of guilt or the degree of crime, from jaywalking to felonies. If a detainee is found to be illegal, the county immediately initiates deportation procedures with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The move, by the largely conservative Republican board, drew national attention and placed the local party at odds with its presidential nominee, who helped write the failed 2006 immigration bill that would have granted a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. "McCain's at risk here because people are concerned that he has not taken a strong enough position on illegal immigration," says Corey Stewart, Republican chairman of the county board.

The McCain campaign got into trouble on Oct. 11 when Jeffrey Frederick, the 33-year-old head of the Virginia Republican Party, likened Obama to Osama bin Laden. "Both have friends that bombed the Pentagon," he told a group of about 30 canvassers. "That is scary." It is also not exactly true — though that distorted reference to Obama's controversial association with William Ayers, a former '60s radical, was enough to stoke the volunteers at McCain's campaign office in Gainesville. "He won't salute the flag," one woman said, repeating another myth about Obama. She was quickly topped by a man in the crowd, wearing a polo shirt embroidered with "I Love America," who called out, "We don't even know where Senator Obama was really born." (Actually, we do. It's Hawaii.) Frederick beamed: "You need to go out and tell people that from your hearts," he said as he sent the volunteers on their way to knock on doors across Prince William County. (The McCain campaign distanced itself from Frederick, who later claimed he'd been joking.)

Meanwhile, Obama — who, like McCain, has made only one appearance in the county, though Joe Biden has made three — spent all summer quietly registering thousands of new voters in Prince William, which had the second largest increase by county in a state that has seen its voter rolls swell by 436,000 since the beginning of the year. The Obama campaign has made a massive push to register blacks, who make up 20% of the population, as well as Latinos and students at the four colleges in the district. Obama will need these voters to eke out a win in Prince William. And if he does that, the state's 13 electoral votes will probably move into the Democrats' column.

So if Prince William County wasn't on McCain's radar at the start, it is now. "Until this past week, I'd always discounted all those talking heads saying Obama will win Virginia," says Earnie Porta, the Democratic mayor of Occoquan, a small town on the northeastern end of the county. "But this week I started to think that with the economy going the way it is, maybe he could."

—— with reporting by Karen Tumulty/ Gainesville

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