As Virginians prepare to vote in tomorrow's Democratic primary, both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton are claiming to be the candidate with the best chance of winning the state in the Nov. 4 general election.
Virginia's choice is especially important because the state could be one that switches sides and helps put a Democrat in the White House.
Although it hasn't supported a Democratic nominee for president since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, the state has been turning more Democratic, especially in the Washington suburbs. Party leaders believe the Democrats could carry the state if the nominee can solidify the party's expanding base in Northern Virginia and reach out to Virginia's many rural voters.
During a speech Saturday night at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Richmond, Obama argued that he is the most likely to win Virginia in the fall because he has proven he can get votes from independents.
"Virginia Democrats know how important this is. That's how Mark Warner won in this state. That's how Tim Kaine won in this state. That's how Jim Webb won in this state," Obama said. "And if I am your nominee, this is one Democrat who plans to campaign in Virginia and win in Virginia this fall."
But Clinton stressed at the dinner that she, too, would fight hard to win Virginia, unlike many past Democratic nominees who conceded the state months before the general election. Clinton said she "has the strength and experience to lead the country" and can go "toe-to-toe" with Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican nominee.
Voters are having the same debate, saying their choice tomorrow will hinge not only on issues but also on which candidate would present a stronger challenge to McCain. Obama's supporters argue that he offers a break with the past and an appeal to national unity that can unlock Virginia's 13 electoral votes for the Democrats. Clinton's camp points to her experience and more moderate voting record.
"You want the Democratic ticket to get into the White House, and I think McCain would eat Obama alive," Gene Carlson of McLean said. "I have no problem with him as a person or a senator, but I think he's not in the same league as his opponents. Give him another 20 years."
Beverly Katz of Arlington County countered that Obama has an advantage because he opposed the war in Iraq from the start. "It's a really big issue for Democrats," Katz said. "He'd stand up better against McCain."
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), all three Democratic members of Virginia's House delegation and half of the Democrats in the state Senate have endorsed Obama.
"I think we are kind of tired of being taken for granted," Kaine said. "We are anxious to be relevant in presidential politics, and we want our votes to matter, and that makes Virginia Democrats excited about Barack Obama."
Mo Elleithee, a Clinton spokesman, rebutted suggestions that Clinton would lose Virginia in a general election.
"Virginia today is not the Virginia of 10 years ago," Elleithee said. "Anyone who underestimates her chances in a state like Virginia is going to be in for a rude awakening the day after the election."
On Super Tuesday, Clinton easily won majorities in many rural counties in Missouri and Tennessee, which share some of Virginia's demographic and cultural traits. Clinton has also been doing well with white women, which could give her a major boost in Northern Virginia while undercutting the GOP advantage in some conservative counties this fall.
However, Obama would be likely to energize Virginia's African American voters and young people.
The stakes are high in the state for both parties. Besides providing an opportunity for Democrats to break the Republican lock on the South in presidential contests, the state will be electing a new U.S. senator and at least one new member of the House of Representatives this year.
Many Virginia Republicans say they would prefer to battle a Democratic slate headed by Clinton. Former governor James S. Gilmore, who is seeking the GOP nomination for Senate, has tried to link his likely Democratic opponent, former governor Mark R. Warner, to Clinton.
"Her negatives are higher, and Obama is this young, new, fresh face," said Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), who is considering running for governor next year. "It would put our candidates in a better stead if they had to run with her at the top of the ticket."
But Clinton proved during her U.S. Senate campaigns that she can win votes from Republicans in New York. A Washington Post poll of Virginia voters in October found that she faced strong opposition at a level comparable to McCain's and only modestly higher than that of Obama. The survey found that four in 10 voters said they definitely wouldn't vote for Clinton, compared to four in 10 for McCain and 35 percent for Obama.
Larry Framme, past executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party, argued that Clinton would also be stronger than Obama against McCain because Virginia has traditionally favored candidates with more experience.
"He is sort of the shiny, bright new thing, but fortunately for all of us, elections are won by the voters," said Framme, who has endorsed Clinton.
Democratic presidential candidates have been making progress in Northern Virginia. In 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) became the first Democratic presidential candidate in 40 years to win Fairfax County, although Bush carried the state.
The challenge for Democrats this fall will be in rural areas, the conservative Richmond suburbs and the pockets of Hampton Roads with high concentrations of veterans and active-duty military personnel.
U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat who represents southwest Virginia, said Obama will keep the GOP nominee's winning margins in check in rural areas.
"Without question, he is the most compelling candidate that our party offers and the most compelling candidate in recent memory," Boucher said.
But some Democrats worry Obama's image in parts of the state might change if he becomes the nominee. They point to Tennessee, where former congressman Harold Ford, an African American, lost his Senate bid in 2006. In that race, national Republicans and various conservative interest groups waged a campaign against him that some Democrats argue was filled with racial undertones.
At Liz's Place, the local breakfast joint in Sutherland, Va., in the heavily Republican south-central part of the state, some customers said Obama might run into difficulty because of his race and name.
"He would have a whole lot better chance if his name was George or Fred or Bob. Actually, not George. Fred or Bob," said regular Jane Meyers, who voted twice for President Bush but is willing to give Obama and Clinton a chance to win her vote this fall.
GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said Obama's real challenge in many parts of Virginia will be his voting record. National Journal ranked Obama as the most liberal senator in 2007.
"What new could you possibly tell a voter about Hillary Clinton that they don't already know?" Fabrizio asked. "On Hillary, the cake is already baked in the voter's mind. The guy who isn't baked in the voter's mind is Barack Obama. At the end of the day, his issue positions would be his undoing in a state like Virginia."
Even so, several voters at Liz's Place were willing to give Obama a chance, and they've ruled out Clinton.
"The Clinton name has really soured me," said Wayne Martin, 69. "When she put up with Bill's shenanigans, I was done with both of them."
Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said large concentrations of voters such as Martin are one reason so many Virginia Democrats have rallied behind Obama.
Holsworth said Obama appears to be a better fit for the strategy Kaine perfected in the 2005 campaign, which emphasized such everyday issues as education and transportation instead of social concerns.
"Virginia Democrats run statewide campaigns, where they mobilize the Democratic base but also have something else that gives them an appeal beyond that base," Holsworth said. "I think most Democratic leaders are more comfortable Obama fits that model."
The Republican Kaine defeated in 2005, former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R), said Obama will be a formidable Democratic candidate if he gets the nomination.
"We already defined her," Kilgore said of Clinton. "We have some work to do on Obama."
Staff writers Mark Berman and Jay Mathews contributed to this report.
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