Obama's strength highlights changes in the South

The Baltimore Sun

SUFFOLK, VA. - The solid South could be cracking beneath John McCain's feet.

Southern support for Barack Obama is building in states that have been reliably Republican for decades, polls show, and they might deliver a decisive verdict in next week's election.

Virginia hasn't gone Democratic for president in 44 years, but it is leaning Obama's way. He holds a narrower edge in other Southern battlegrounds: North Carolina, last carried by a Democrat in 1976, and Florida, which decided the 2000 race.

"The loss of a single one of those states would make it virtually impossible for McCain to win," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

McCain has sought to exploit the region's cultural divisions, putting himself squarely on the side of older forces that have held sway for decades.

A new McCain radio ad, now airing in the South, portrays Obama as out of step with "our America." A top McCain adviser provoked angry reactions when she claimed recently that Obama was losing the "real Virginia," those parts of the state beyond the Washington, D.C., area.

The latest poll numbers suggest a different reality: Voter trends are catching up with wider changes that have been under way for a long time in the old Confederacy.

"These are not old-timey rural states anymore. These are muscular metropolitan states," says Ferrel Guillory, director of the University of North Carolina's Program on Public Life.

The thriving bedroom communities of North Carolina's Research Triangle, Florida's I-4 corridor and Northern Virginia's high-tech suburbs are increasingly where Southerners live, and many of them are open to Obama's message.

"They may be fiscally conservative and live in mostly white neighborhoods," said Guillory, "but there is a sense that Obama represents, to them, a kind of turning of the page after George Bush."

Obama is avoiding states McCain will likely carry, such as Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee.

Instead, the Democrat is targeting the region's fastest-growing states, especially Virginia and North Carolina, where expanding economies have lured thousands of new residents, black and white, including those from outside the South.

Obama has gone deep into rural areas, hoping to chip away at McCain's big advantage among culturally conservative whites.

But Obama's greatest emphasis has been on the suburbs, including the rapidly growing outer suburbs that Republicans dominated in recent presidential contests.

Among the Democratic targets: Suffolk, Va., population 80,000.

"We're competing for every single vote here in the Old Dominion," vice presidential candidate Joe Biden told a rally yesterday at a half-filled local high school gym.

"We win here, and we win the presidency."

In this Tidewater community, not far from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, billows of white cover fields on the edge of town - a bumper cotton harvest, not snow. On Main Street, a statue of Mr. Peanut pays tribute to another cash crop.

But Suffolk's new identity is as the fastest-growing part of Hampton Roads, home to the world's largest naval base in Norfolk and the biggest swing area of this new swing state.

"Four years ago, I said that voters in the Tampa area would decide the election. This time, I honestly believe that whoever wins the Norfolk media market could be the next president," said Mo Elleithee, a Democrat with campaign experience in Florida and Virginia.

Public opinion surveys show a tight race in this region, the most populous in Virginia after the heavily Democratic D.C. suburbs. Privately, Democrats say they've never seen presidential poll numbers this good in Hampton Roads.

Biden's stop in Suffolk, which Bush carried four years ago, is a sign that Obama is so bullish on the state that he's taking the fight to where Republicans live.

McCain, who has made two visits to Hampton Roads in recent weeks, is fighting back with fresh appeals to the active-duty military families and retirees who are the backbone of the local economy.

But the military vote isn't monolithic.

Jonathan Alston of Suffolk, a lieutenant, junior grade, wore his Navy uniform to cast the first presidential vote of his life, an in-person absentee ballot. A political independent, he said he chose Obama, after months of indecision, primarily for his energy and tax plans.

"I pay more in taxes than I do for anything else," said the graduate of New Hope Academy in Landover, Md., and Georgetown University. "Obviously, I don't make over $250,000 a year, so Obama's not going to raise my taxes."

The 23-year-old African-American said racial pride wasn't really a factor in his decision.

"I don't want to say it's offensive [to suggest that], but civil rights is not an issue that really came up in the election," he said.

Across the country, African-Americans are expected to vote in record numbers, which is helping Obama in the South and elsewhere and could boost the prospects of other Democratic candidates on the Nov. 4 ballot.

In North Carolina, an aggressive new-voter drive has boosted the black share of the state's electorate by two percentage points since 2004.

That could be a significant edge in a race expected to be close, since it reduces the share of the white vote that Obama would need to carry the state.

In Virginia, voter rolls have ballooned by more than 400,000. Nearly 40 percent are under 25, an age group that strongly favors Obama.

Virginia's and North Carolina's emergence as potential Democratic pickups is among the biggest surprises of the campaign.

Obama has gone after both states with large-scale spending - much larger than McCain's investment - plus frequent in-person campaign appearances and extensive grass-roots organizing. Those factors could add at least three percentage points in a close election, strategists say.

His intensive TV and radio ad drive has helped Obama promote his tax-cut plan and inoculate him against criticism, such as McCain's warning that he'll raise taxes.

Eight years ago, Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee, in part, because of opposition from the National Rifle Association.

Obama is airing an endorsement spot from Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a favorite of gun owners, who says he trusts Obama to protect gun rights and America's "greatness as a nation."

In another endorsement ad, popular Democratic former governor Mark Warner, currently running 25 points ahead in his own Senate race, praises Obama as a unifier to independent voters.

Tim Kaine, the state's current Democratic governor, was among Obama's earliest supporters.

Another often overlooked Obama advantage, Democrats say, is his appeal to college-educated suburban whites.

What appears to have tipped the contest, however, is the emergence of pocketbook issues as an overwhelming voter concern, including in fast-growing outer suburbs, where commuters are particularly sensitive to gas prices and declining housing values.

In a manicured new development in suburban Loudoun County, about an hour west of downtown Washington, Kristi Linane, 40, stands in her driveway and explains why she'll vote for Obama after backing Bush four years ago.

"The economy stinks. The housing market. Everybody's losing their jobs. It's horrible," she says.

The stay-at-home mother of two said she considers Obama "dynamic" and a breath of fresh air but says she was open to voting for McCain until he made his vice presidential choice.

"I'm very, very offended by [Sarah] Palin," she says. "I think McCain's going to keel over and we'll be stuck with Palin."

Both campaigns are targeting Loudoun, the fastest-growing county in the nation a few years ago. Bush carried it by a dozen percentage points in 2004, and McCain aides say it's a must-win if they are to hold Virginia.

But Obama's team says they'll prevail.

The other day, Obama addressed tens of thousands at a park in Leesburg, the county seat.

"Let me tell you something, there are no real or fake parts of this country," he said, and deplored what he called "the same political tactics that are used every election to divide us from one another and make us afraid of one another. With the challenges and crises we face right now, we can't afford a divided country."

The Republican ticket won't let that be the last word in the battleground territory. Palin is scheduled to appear at a Leesburg rally tomorrow.

latest polls in southern battlegrounds

Virginia:

Obama 51.5%

McCain 44.5%

Average Obama +7%

North Carolina:

Obama 48.6%

McCain 47.6%

Average Obama +1%

Florida:

Obama 47.8%

McCain 45.6%

Average Obama +2.2%

SOURCE: Real Clear Politics, average of most recent statewide opinion surveys

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