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Inside NoVa's Most Evenly-Divided Neighborhood

A couple of thousand miles from the yammering politicians in Denver, a world away from the TV news version of an America polarized into red and blue boxes, the Valley West neighborhood pool in Fairfax County in these last days before school reopens is a place where Republican moms are intrigued by Barack Obama and their Democratic friends wonder if this is the year to switch over to John McCain.

Two friends, long loyal to different parties, debate the choice:

"After Bush botched everything, I thought it was time for a change," says the Republican, a mother of two young children. "So I was for Hillary. Really, I was surprised I liked her so much. If Obama had put Hillary on the ticket, I'd have voted for him. Now, I don't know."

"Both of these guys are so out of touch with the common folks," says the Democrat. The women don't want their names used for fear of getting their husbands, both military men, in trouble. "If it was Hillary, I'd vote for her. But now, I think McCain really gets it. Obama -- I just don't think he's been around long enough."

If this year's presidential race is to be decided in Virginia -- and the way the two parties are flooding the state with dollars, staffers and TV spots, they seem to agree that's a good possibility -- one of the most pivotal places for the campaigns to visit would be the most evenly divided spot in Northern Virginia, West Springfield's Valley precinct.

The 2,700 voters who live in 1960s houses and 1990s townhouses off Rolling Road north of the Fairfax County Parkway gave George Bush a 160-vote margin over Al Gore in 2000, then flipped to pick John Kerry over Bush by just 20 votes in 2004. In 2006, the precinct went for Democrat Jim Webb over incumbent George Allen for the U.S. Senate, but by an almost identical vote chose Republican Rep. Tom Davis over his Democratic challenger. In last year's state Senate race, which Republican Ken Cuccinelli won by fewer than 100 votes districtwide, Valley went for Democratic challenger Janet Oleszek by a single vote.

In 27 years here, Jim Kirkpatrick, a Navy man who now works at the American Astronautical Society, has watched a solid Republican majority morph into a mix in which "everything's up for grabs." As the GOP precinct captain, Kirkpatrick hears grumbling from people who've spent most of their lives voting for someone named Reagan or Bush but now wonder if it's time for something completely different.

"Both of my own daughters -- they're in their 20s -- there's no question they're for Obama," he says. "People from my generation say, 'You know, you've lost me.' I don't know if it was George Allen or what, but some loyal Republicans told me they just can't vote the party ticket. Both parties are going to have to fight for every vote. I mean, I've always been a Republican, but I'd like to see these candidates appear together and see how that goes."

Obama's attraction to some moderate Republicans is similar to his appeal to many young people. "It's youth and fresh ideas and eight years of unpleasant things," Kirkpatrick says. "Maybe it's time to have a minority candidate. Think of countries where the media is so anti-U.S. What will people think of the evil United States if we elect a black president? It couldn't hurt our image in the world."

There's not a lot of overt politics here; I saw just one lawn sign for Obama and one McCain bumper sticker. Roads and schools are the dominant issues, and most residents pay little attention to party labels. (The traffic light on Rolling Road is known to many as the Albo Light, a tribute to the man who helped get it installed. Del. Dave Albo will probably face a stiff challenge next fall, but most voters couldn't tell me which party he represents -- he's a Republican.)

"Everyone seems to be in the middle," says Matthew Lopez, a county firefighter who has worked hard for Democrats in his eight years here. "At this point, you'd think everyone would pretty much have their minds made up, but they don't. They're very upset with what Bush turned out to be. But a lot of people, even Democrats, really don't know what to make of Obama."

Lopez hears real enthusiasm for former governor Mark Warner's bid for the U.S. Senate and for Fairfax board Chairman Gerry Connolly in his congressional race. But will support for those Democrats translate to votes for Obama? "McCain does have that independent tradition," Lopez says, though he's solidly in the Obama camp. "There's a lot of worry that Obama hasn't spent a lot of time on the national stage."

At the pool, Sara Sistla and Ganta Sarala consider the candidates and the endless TV advertising and come up puzzled. "Unless you're someone who's really focused on politics, it's hard," Sarala says. "All I know is we are very worried about the economy -- jobs, gas prices. We'll have to see."

This election won't be won among those who attend or even watch conventions, or among those who follow cable gabfests or online agitation. At the pool, it's all about getting a feel for the man and taking a chance on who might make next year's family budget less of a bust and the world a bit more secure.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  August 28, 2008; 8:56 AM ET
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Comments

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It's Village West pool, not Valley West.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 28, 2008 10:22 AM

Yes, the name of the pool is likely incorrect. If you meant Village West Pool, I was there today and the topic of conversation was also the candidates and not the party. Specifically the selection of Palin. My friend, mostly Republican but till now unsure of McCain, was very excited about Palin: "She didn't change who she was just to get a political position. That's just who she is. She's down to earth and a reformer. It gives me a lot more confidence in McCain."

Posted by: Gustow | August 30, 2008 11:17 PM

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