RUTHER GLEN, Va.--If the 2008 election is destined to break up a frozen electoral map, Virginia is one of the most likely venues for the great political thaw.
The state has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 44 years, yet the trends are decidedly in the party's favor. Demographic change, often a driver of realignment, is occurring at a furious clip.
The Old Dominion is now the New Dominion, particularly in the suburban and exurban counties north of the Rappahannock River. Barack Obama could not have carried Virginia as it once was. But he is running even with John McCain in a paradoxical state that was home to the Confederacy's capital but also gave the nation its first elected African-American governor in 1989, Doug Wilder.
And no other state can boast that it has had three plausible names on the list of potential vice presidential choices: its current governor, Tim Kaine, former Gov. Mark Warner, and Sen. Jim Webb.
Only Kaine has stayed in the running. Warner's withdrawal was not surprising. He had already announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate and leads Jim Gilmore, a former Republican governor, by as much as 2-1 in some polls.
Webb's announcement last week that he would "under no circumstances" be a candidate for vice president was less expected since he enjoys broad support in the party's Net-roots for his strong stand against the Iraq War and as an antidote to Obama's weakness across Appalachia.
A former Reagan administration official, Webb is so proud of his Scots-Irish heritage that he wrote a book about it, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. His people settled Appalachia, Webb has written, "and they pressed onward, creating a way of life that many would come to call, if not American, certainly the defining fabric of the South and the Midwest, as well as the core character of the nation's working class." It is that part of the white working class that seems particularly resistant to Obama.
Yet Webb, who has been in the Senate less than two years, saw his obligations there and thinks he can best help Obama by campaigning in Virginia. Kimberly Hunter, Webb's press secretary, also acknowledged that the vice presidential speculation was already leading his critics to ransack his earlier writings, particularly on the role of women in the military. When his old statements were raised against him in his Senate race, Webb said that had he been "a more mature individual," he wouldn't have written some of the offensive lines.
"The Senate race was already starting to replay itself with the same old oppo research being thrown back," Hunter said. "If we have no intention to pursue this, there's no reason to be distracted by questions that are unrelated to the Senate."
That leaves Kaine, whose political approach is remarkably similar to Obama's. Kaine is broadly progressive in his views. But like Obama, whom he supported in the primaries, Kaine has been a vocal critic of partisanship. Indeed, Virginia Democrats have been gaining ground since 2001 partly by casting theirs as the party of nonpartisanship and Republicans as the ideologues.
"We've been doing that here in Virginia for a while," said Mo Elleithee, a top Kaine consultant who worked for Hillary Clinton this year. "We did that with Warner in '01, Kaine in '05 and Democratic legislative candidates in '07."
Elleithee sees the path for Obama in Virginia as similar to Kaine's: Win just enough in the state's rural areas and overwhelm McCain in the Washington suburbs and among African-Americans, notably in Hampton Roads.
Yet Elleithee also says McCain makes the state "very challenging" for the Democrats, particularly because his war-hero status appeals to its large population of active and retired military voters. Gerry Scimeca, the communications director of the Republican Party of Virginia, said the state's history made McCain's standing as "a man who sacrificed himself" especially resonant.
But the issue in Virginia may well be whether history is just history this year. Christopher Peace, a 31-year-old Republican who represents this area just north of Richmond in the state House of Delegates, argues that the election will be decided by "people in their mid-30s, married with two children and two dogs, professional families."
"A lot of that rhetoric about 'working families' is about them," Peace said. "They are not duty-bound to their party anymore. They are duty-bound to their pocketbooks." Such voters made Kaine governor, and they're the ones Obama needs to win.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.