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Virginia Notebook: Democrats' Prospects Slipping Away

Tim Craig

At the start of the year, Virginia and national Democrats had high hopes that the state's 13 electoral votes could be up for grabs in the Nov. 4 presidential election.

But as the fight between Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) grinds on, it's starting to feel as though the Democratic prospects in Virginia might be slipping away.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee, should be an early favorite to win the state, and he probably grows a bit stronger every week there is not a Democratic nominee.

Virginia hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, but a Washington Post poll last summer showed that four in 10 voters prefer that a Democrat be elected to the White House in 2008, compared with three in 10 who said they want a Republican. A Post survey in October found a similar result.

Many Democratic officials in the state say Clinton couldn't carry Virginia, a belief reaffirmed after her poor showing in the state's Feb. 12 primary, when she managed to get just 35 percent in a race that drew 1.million voters.

Obama, however, could potentially be the first Democratic presidential candidate in more than a generation to win the state.

Because Virginia has large numbers of African Americans and well-educated voters, many Democrats think Obama could drive up turnout in Northern Virginia and the state's urban centers to be competitive -- if he also finds a way to win over a little more than a third of voters in rural areas.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and the state's three Democrats in the U.S. House say Obama's potential to win Virginia is one of the reasons why they endorsed him.

The ramifications of an Obama victory in Virginia, which President Bush won by eight percentage points in 2004, would be huge for Democratic prospects to win the White House.

If he can win Virginia, as well as the states that Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) carried in 2004, Obama would be five electoral votes shy of winning the White House. If he also wins Iowa, Nevada or New Mexico, states that Kerry narrowly lost, Obama would be the next president, regardless of what voters in Ohio and Florida decide.

But McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam who has a reputation for being relatively moderate on some issues, will run strong with veterans and will appeal to Republicans and some independents who live in Northern Virginia and suburban Richmond.

McCain also appears to be solidifying the GOP base of social conservatives, a big chunk of Virginia's electorate.

Obama, who pledged at the Democrats' Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in February to campaign hard in the state, needs time to undercut McCain's expected advantages in a state such as Virginia.

Obama has to introduce himself to voters while playing up McCain's support for the war in Iraq, which nearly six in 10 Virginians polled last fall said was not worth fighting.

It probably isn't going to be easy, especially because some party leaders in conservative southwest Virginia are threatening to sit out the election if Obama is the nominee.

Even if Obama keeps all of the voters who showed up for him in the primary, he would need to find about 600,000 additional voters in the fall, assuming turnout was the same as in 2004.

But Obama can't hunt for new voters as long as he is locked in a bitter battle with Clinton, who many analysts believe has little mathematical chance to win the nomination because she trails in pledged delegates.

Some Democrats argue that the extended nomination fight is good for the Democrats, bolstering party registration and excitement.

In states that have yet to hold primaries, such as Pennsylvania and Indiana, the nomination battle probably is good for Democrats. In Virginia, however, the nomination battle may only be distracting Democrats from the general election fight.

Some Clinton supporters in Virginia say the nomination fight can go all the way to the convention in August without damaging the nominee. They argue that Democratic voters will quickly put aside the bitter nominating contest and rally behind the party's nominee.

But there are not enough self-described Democrats in Virginia to win a statewide race. The Post poll from last summer found about 30 percent of Virginia's adults call themselves independents.

In the era of modern presidential campaigns, it may be risky to assume those independents will wait until after the convention to form an impression about the candidate.

In an effort to appeal to working-class voters in Pennsylvania, Clinton might be hurting Obama's chances in a state such as Virginia. Clinton's attacks on Obama this week over his remarks that small-town Americans are latching onto religion and guns could make it harder for him to appeal to white voters in rural Virginia.

Virginia Democrats might be left in a situation in which there are no good options for keeping the state in play this year.

If Obama is the nominee, he might not have time to undo the damage inflicted on him by Clinton, as well as the controversy of his former pastor, as it relates to rural white voters.

If Clinton snags the nomination at the convention, her strategy to win the general election most likely won't include Virginia, especially when she realizes she might have a hard time motivating African Americans to the polls.

Given Virginia's shifting demographics, it's only a matter of time before the state plays a big role in a presidential race. But it will probably not be this year, unless the Democratic nomination fight ends soon.

By Tim Craig  |  April 16, 2008; 12:03 PM ET
Categories:  Election 2008/President , Tim Craig , Virginia Notebook  
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