ARLINGTON, Va. - It was in Virginia that Democrat Douglas Wilder became the nation's first elected African-American governor. Now, Senator Barack Obama is trying to defeat Senator Hillary Clinton in the Virginia primary tomorrow and boost his chances of becoming the first black Democratic presidential nominee.
It was also Virginia that finished off Republican Senator John McCain's presidential campaign eight years ago, a bruising defeat that followed McCain's attack on two of the state's Christian conservative icons as "agents of intolerance." Now McCain is hoping Virginia will put a ribbon on his status as 2008 Republican front-runner as he takes on the favorite of the evangelicals, Mike Huckabee.
As one of the "Potomac primaries," along with Maryland and the District of Columbia, Virginia has become perhaps the single most valuable political prize for both parties in the monthlong period between last week's Super Tuesday and a March 4 multistate vote. The battles in Virginia are for delegates and momentum, not just victories at the polls.
The key to both Virginia contests could be the perception that the Republican race is all but over. The state does not require party registration, meaning that voters can opt to vote in either primary. For the voters who describe themselves as independents, that could mean there is less incentive to participate in the GOP contest, although Huckabee is pinning his hopes on their support.
"Independents may move to the Democratic primary," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor. Partly as a result, the race has taken on added importance, he said, and "Clinton has decided to make Virginia a battleground with Obama." Clinton is slated to visit Sabato's political science class today.
Wilder, 77, whose grandfather was a slave, said in an interview that his 1990 election as governor of Virginia proved that the state's voters have long been ready to embrace an African-American to lead them. What has changed, Wilder said, is that the nation is different from when he ran for president unsuccessfully in 1992 in the middle of his term as governor.
"I think a lot has changed because Americans have changed," said Wilder, now mayor of Richmond and an Obama supporter. In his own presidential run, Wilder said, his message scored well in polls and focus groups until people realized he was black. He said that compared with that response, Obama's defeat in New Hampshire was a victory, and he predicted that Obama will win strongly in Virginia.
The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, spent much of last week preparing the public for her defeats in the Potomac primaries and in other contests prior to March 4, when voting is held in states with populations expected to be more favorable to Clinton. Among those voting that day are the heavily Hispanic state of Texas, the working-class state of Ohio, and the liberal New England states of Vermont and Rhode Island.
The Potomac primaries are arriving after a series of contests on Saturday dominated by Obama, with wins in primaries and caucuses in Washington state, Nebraska, Louisiana, and the Virgin Islands. For the GOP, Huckabee won in Kansas and Louisiana, while McCain won in Washington. Yesterday, Obama won the Democratic caucuses in Maine.
After the Maine vote, Clinton had 1,136 delegates, compared with 1,108 for Obama, out of the needed 2,205 to win the nomination, according to an Associated Press tally. Among Republicans, McCain has a lead that many analysts believe is insurmountable, while Huckabee said a "miracle" could propel him to the nomination.
Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson told reporters in a conference call Friday that Obama has the upper hand in all three Potomac primaries as well as the rest of the contests this month. While campaigns often try to lower expectations, Wolfson all but conceded defeat, saying Obama is far ahead, especially in tomorrow's primaries.
A poll released Friday by the Southern Political Report indicated Obama was leading Clinton in Virginia, by 52 percent to 37 percent, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points. The survey suggested Obama was leading among African-Americans, and running even with Clinton among whites.
Wolfson said that in Virginia, along with Maryland, "Senator Obama has some significant advantages."
"As a campaign, we have long factored that reality into our planning," he said. Asked what advantages Obama has in Virginia, Wolfson said that Obama has the support of Virginia's Democratic governor, Tim Kaine, and has been advertising longer than Clinton in the state. Wolfson said he was not referring to the racial makeup of Virginia.
Virginia is a diverse state that melds elements of the South and North, from the affluent and more liberal Washington suburbs and Charlottesville area, to the more conservative, military-centered region called Hampton Roads. A mix of other rural and urban regions stretches across the state from the Atlantic to the Blue Ridge mountains. While Virginia usually falls into the Republican column in presidential elections, it is viewed as a vital tossup this November. While Kaine is with Obama, Republican Senator John Warner is supporting McCain, and Democrat James Webb is uncommitted.
The state's demographic makeup gives both Democratic candidates reason for optimism. The state is 20 percent African-American, a smaller percentage than in the two Southern states that Obama won on Tuesday and closer to the makeup of Tennessee, which has an African-American population of 17 percent and was won by Clinton. Maryland has a 30 percent African-American population and 57 percent of the District of Columbia's population is black.
Clinton hopes to compete strongly in Virginia suburbs near Washington such as Arlington, which is filled with liberal and establishment Democrats who dominate the party structure and have strong ties to Washington. Appearing at Washington Lee High School in Arlington last week, Cllinton told a packed gymnasium that her healthcare plan would cover all Americans, while Obama's would not mandate coverage. Obama has said his plan would focus on lowering the cost of care.
On the Republican side, McCain is trying to make up for a bitter defeat here in 2000. After losing to George W. Bush in South Carolina, McCain had hoped to tap into the state's heavy military constituency and use Virginia for a comeback. Speaking in Virginia Beach, the home base of religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, McCain had said: "Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right."
Since then, McCain has tried to make amends, and met publicly with Falwell, who died last year. But Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani, despite the former New York mayor's support for abortion rights. The failure of Giuliani's candidacy has undermined Robertson's influence in the race, but Robertson said last week on Fox News Radio that he could not support McCain because "you never know when he's going to explode."
Huckabee is hoping that his appeal to evangelicals, along with Romney's absence from the race, will give him a chance at winning the state and will keep alive, at least mathematically, his chance to win the nomination.