RICHMOND, Va. -- The two candidates barnstorming for the Democratic presidential nomination collided on a stage in central Virginia last night, both hoping to strike a spark in a state that could suddenly prove crucial to their presidential hopes.
Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama each appeared, separately, at the Virginia Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner, turning what is normally a back-slapping festival for local and state party officials into a concentrated dose of do-or-die national electioneering.
Clinton took the stage first, casting a more partisan than personal tone. She asked the crowd to imagine the 2009 presidential inauguration, and told them: "Our task tonight is to make sure that president is a Democrat."
When she did get personal, her attacks were directed not toward her impending Democratic opponent but rather toward Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican nominee.
She challenged McCain to debates, and suggested she is the most likely candidate to beat the Arizona senator in a general election. The New York senator mentioned Obama only tangentially, and politely, such as when she applauded the party's readiness to nominate a woman or a black man for president.
"For seven long years we have neither addressed our problems nor seized our opportunities," she said. "We have tried it George Bush's way ... and now with Sen. McCain as the likely nominee, the Republicans have chosen more of the same."
Obama took the stage 90 minutes later, introduced by Gov. Timothy Kaine to applause so raucous it felt more like a coronation than a stump speech. He had kind words for both Clinton and McCain, whom he called a "true American hero."
Like Clinton, Obama sounded as though he were already running against the Republican front-runner rather this his intra-party rival. He associated McCain with "the failed policies of George W. Bush" and said that "somewhere along the lines the wheels came off the Straight Talk Express," referring to the nickname for McCain's campaign.
He pledged to raise the minimum wage, reverse tax cuts for corporations that move jobs overseas, impose tighter restrictions on carbon emissions and end the war in Iraq - issues that put him at odds with the GOP.
"It's about the past versus the future," Obama said. "Republicans in Washington are already running on the politics of yesterday, which is why we need to be the party of tomorrow."
The showdown before 5,000 Democrats enveloped a city whose politics, while certainly legendary on a historical level, are rarely conducted with such street-level energy. Throughout the day chants and sirens rose up from all corners of Virginia's capital, as police funneled Democrats in evening wear toward the convention hall and escorted a parade of anti-war protesters up and down the main thoroughfares.
Normally an afterthought in national primaries, Virginia's 103 delegates could be decisive this year. Virginians said they relished their new stature yesterday, even as they chided the candidates for ignoring them in the past.
"It's not enough to dip your fingers or toes into the waters of the Potomac, across from Washington D.C., and call that campaigning in Virginia," said former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.
"Some people write us off," he added. "They say Virginians are a part of the past. Well, we don't live in the past, and now we're part of the future."