McCain Strategist Predicts Close Va. Race
By Tim Craig
RICHMOND, Aug. 14 -- A top strategist for Sen. John McCain's campaign said Thursday that the presidential contest in Virginia will "undoubtedly be close" this fall and acknowledged that the state should no longer be considered a Republican stronghold.
The comments by Mike DuHaime, McCain's political director, represent a significant shift in the GOP's thinking and are the latest signal that Virginia is emerging as a state that could make or break McCain's chances to defeat Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive Democratic nominee.
"Obviously, Senator Obama is putting an awful lot of money into Virginia both on the ground and on television, and it is a state that has elected Democrats recently," DuHaime said in a conference call with Virginia reporters. "But it's one we take very seriously and one we think still leans for us and one we will fight for every single day."
DuHaime's comments about the state of the race in Virginia stand in stark contrast to a strategy briefing released in June by Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager. In that PowerPoint presentation, which was posted on the Arizona senator's Web site, Virginia was listed as one of 17 "solidly Republican" states.
DuHaime, who described Virginia as a "center-right state," said he still expects McCain to win Virginia because of his appeal among veterans in Hampton Roads and independents in vote-rich Northern Virginia.
But DuHaime noted that recent polls show Obama and McCain are essentially tied in the state. He said the McCain campaign is stepping up its efforts to organize in Virginia, including assembling more than 1,000 precinct captains.
"Basically you are looking at an even race in Virginia," DuHaime said. "But we think [McCain] is a Republican who matches up very well in Virginia."
The Obama campaign said DuHaime's comments prove that McCain is worried he could become the first Republican presidential nominee in 44 years to lose Virginia.
"They are now seeing the same things we are seeing, which is it is really close in Virginia," said Kevin Griffis, an Obama spokesman. "We are making a strong effort there and we are making that strong effort because we absolutely believe that Virginia is in play."
Since he clinched the Democratic nomination in June, Obama has been airing television ads statewide, opened 33 offices, and dispatched dozens of his most experienced field operatives into communities across Virginia, which has 13 electoral votes.
On Wednesday, Obama sent another signal about how badly he wants to win Virginia by announcing that Democratic Senate candidate Mark R. Warner, a popular former governor, will deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention later this month.
The campaign also announced Thursday that another chief Obama surrogate, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), will hit the stump for Obama this weekend in state.
Kaine, who has been mentioned as possible vice presidential candidate, will hold four town hall meetings for Obama on Saturday in Northern Virginia's fast-growing outer suburbs. On Sunday, Kaine will go door to door for Obama in the city of Richmond.
A Democratic presidential nominee last won Virginia in 1964, but demographic shifts and a decline of the Republican brand in vote-rich Northern Virginia has left Democrats optimistic that Obama can carry the state this year.
If Obama wins all the states that Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) carried in 2004, and adds Virginia and one other state that Bush also won that year, he would have more than the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. If McCain loses Virginia, he would most likely have to pick off a heavily populated state that voted for Kerry, such as Michigan or Pennsylvania.
Today, President Bush's former top political strategist, Karl Rove, wrote an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal saying that Virginia, Colorado, Ohio and Michigan will be the four states that will decide the election.
Rove said Virginia, which Bush won by 8 percentage points in 2004, remains an "uphill climb for Mr. Obama, but not out of reach."
Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the comments by Rove and DuHaime prove Republicans are now taking Obama's efforts in Virginia seriously.
"I think the Republicans, for awhile, thought it was a feint, they thought it was a bluff, and the Democrats were just trying to divert attention and make Republicans spend money, " Holsworth said. "But now, they are realizing Obama is very serious about Virginia."
DuHaime said he still expects Obama to outspend McCain in Virginia, but added the GOP now has a "battle-tested" team of staffers focused on guaranteeing a McCain victory. Yesterday, McCain's trademark "Straight Talk Express" bus made two stops in Virginia to try to generate interest in his campaign.
"No doubt about it, it is extraordinarily important for us to win Virginia and we are not thinking of a calculus without it," DuHaime said.
Posted at 7:22 PM ET on Aug 14, 2008
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