WOODBRIDGE, Va. -- As he stood waiting for President Barack Obama to arrive for a campaign rally at a minor league baseball field, longtime Virginia resident Rick Flaherty marveled that his state could help the Democrat remain in the White House.
“It’s a sign of progress that we think we can pick up the state of Virginia,” said Flaherty, a retired scientist who along with his equally enthusiastic wife, Diane, joined a diverse crowd of 12,000 in Prince William County outside Washington to cheer the incumbent. “We love Obama. He’s a person you want to have a beer with.”
Virginia broke with tradition four years ago when it chose a Democrat for president for the first time since 1964. Paired with an Obama win in North Carolina, the 2008 victory suggested the Democrats might be able to make a sustained push into the border South for the first time since it turned solidly Republican in the 1960s.
Now, the economy in Virginia continues to lag, even in a state where a close proximity to the nation’s capital has helped keep the unemployment rate below the national average. Despite changing demographics that should give the Democrats an even better shot in Virginia than they had in 2008, many Virginians don’t want to give Obama a second chance. And the Republicans could retake the state, along with neighbor North Carolina, and stop the Democratic march into the South.
“Four years ago people were looking for a change, for whatever reason. There were so many reasons to look beyond George Bush,” said Loudoun County resident Chris Hoffmann, who recently joined 8,000 boisterous Mitt Romney supporters at an outdoor rally in Leesburg recently featuring country musician Andy Griggs, comedian Dennis Miller and the Republican nominee for president. “Obama is an articulate man who offered a lot of promises. He can be very persuasive. But he’s had four years and things have only gotten worse.”
After leaning toward Obama for much of the race, Virginia is now up for grabs.
As of Sunday, the two major party candidates each had the support of 47.8 percent of likely voters, the tie making it the closet state in the country according to an average of public polls compiled by the website realclearpolitics.com. Four years ago at this time, Obama led by 7.3 points in Virginia over Republican John McCain.
With the race so close and the stakes so high, the candidates are familiar faces in the state, from coal country in the southwest, the farmlands in the central region, military-rich eastern Virginia and the bustling suburbs in northern Virginia, where the federal government employs tens of thousands of people.
The president chose Virginia as the place to formally kick off his general election campaign in April. Since then, he’s stopped here 16 times. He planned another visit Monday to campaign with former President Bill Clinton, tough they canceled due to the threat of Hurricane Sandy. Vice President Joe Biden has held four events in Virginia. Romney has held 20 events in Virginia and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, another 14.
The appeal of the candidates is just one part of the Virginia story, though.
It wasn’t Obama alone who pulled the state into play in 2008. Virginia has shifted from reliably Republican to soundly divided thanks to dramatic demographic changes that have made the state more diverse, youthful and educated.