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Is Obama Gaining Ground on Clinton’s Turf?

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign has made clear that it expects Sen. Barack Obama to be the big winner in Tuesday’s Potomac Primary.

That expectation is backed by recent polls that show Obama winning handily in Maryland and Virginia, with the District of Columbia expected to follow suit. But what may matter most is exactly how Obama wins.

The contest between Clinton and Obama has up to this point been largely one of demographics. Her strongest support has come from women, blue-collar workers, Latinos and older voters. Obama’s strength has been among African-Americans, younger voters, and more affluent, better-educated Democrats. Tuesday’s vote will include a significant number of African-American voters and the kind of upscale Democrats who have turned out for Obama in strong numbers, and a simple repeat of the primary pattern so far would likely be enough to give Obama victories in Maryland and D.C.

But Virginia – the day’s biggest prize, with 83 delegates at stake – is a different kind of state. A large urban corridor stretches from the suburbs around Washington, along the eastern edge of the state, to around Norfolk, while a large rural swathe fills much of the rest of the state.

“It’s a demographically very diverse state,” said Mark Rozell, who studies local and national politics at George Mason University. Virginia is “one part red and one part blue,” Rozell said. “Geographically it is much more red than blue, but based on population, it’s much more competitive now.”

Rozell said the growing population of the state’s urban areas and the significant African-American population – expected to be more than 20 percent of the primary vote – favored Obama. But, Rozell said, “The rural vote is up for grabs.”

Whether Obama can make inroads among white voters, especially in the rural part of the state, will show whether his campaign is truly gaining ground on Clinton.

Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communications director, said Obama has “some real advantages” in Virginia, and pointed out that he started advertising and organizing earlier than she did. “As a campaign, we have long factored that reality into our planning,” Wolfson said.

But Wolfson pointed to Clinton’s strong showing in rural areas of Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma, and said her focus on economic themes had been effective there. “Rural America has been hurting over the last seven years as a result of the Bush economy,” Wolfson said.

In her campaign stops in the state, Clinton hit this economic message, including a pledge to work for universal health care, while also looking forward to a general election match-up with Sen. John McCain, the Republican front-runner. "The next president will face tremendous challenges," Clinton said Saturday at the Virginia Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Richmond. "I do have the strength and experience to lead this country."

Obama, speaking at the same dinner about an hour later, also looked forward to a battle with McCain. He said his strength among independent voters makes him the best general election candidate. “It’s because we’ve won in more red states and swing states that the next Democratic nominee needs to win in November,” Obama said.

Virginia has an open primary system, and, if moderates and Independents see the Republican race as decided, they could turn out in even greater numbers for Obama on Tuesday, further encouraging that argument.

Obama also cited the statewide victories of former Gov. Mark Warner, current Gov. Tim Kaine, and Jim Webb, elected to the Senate in 2006. All took advantage of the recent growth in Northern Virginia, which has left the area dense with the kind of well-educated, upper-income voters that have favored Obama.

Ruy Teixeira, a polling analyst and co-author of “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” said the region has seen a big influx of "fairly educated, fairly affluent and culturally relatively liberal voters” who have, in other states, supported Obama. Teixeira contrasted these voters with “lunch-bucket Democrats” elsewhere in the state that Clinton is targeting.

Kaine, who has endorsed Obama, insisted that he was not limiting his efforts to the northern part of the state, and pointed to campaign stops throughout Virginia. “He is trying to touch all parts of the state,” Kaine said.

But Teixeira said the political shift in the North — which has moved steadily Democratic with the growth of the suburbs — cannot be avoided. “In election after election,” Teixeira said, “we see more evidence of this.” The realignment makes some Democrats optimistic that Virginia, which has long preferred Republican presidential candidates, could be up for grabs in 2008.

“If I am your nominee," Obama said, "this is one Democrat who plans to campaign in Virginia and win in Virginia this fall.”

Doug Wilder, the mayor of Richmond and a former Virginia governor, recalled this week in The Wall Street Journal that Bill Clinton lost the state in 1992 by a slimmer margin than many expected. “When I saw that, I turned to the new first couple and noted that Mr. Clinton could have carried Virginia, if only he had campaigned there,” Wilder wrote.

Wilder has endorsed Obama, and is among those who think the Illinois senator could make Virginia competitive for Democrats in the fall.

But some analysts reject that contention.

“The assumption there is that Clinton could not be competitive in the South,” said Rozell. He pointed to her roots in Arkansas, and noted that Democrats don’t need to win in the region, but simply hold down their losses. “I’m not sure that there’s a significantly greater advantage for the Democrats in the South with Obama, as opposed to Clinton,” Rozell said.

For some Virginia Democrats, it seems the novelty of being important in the nomination fight is valuable in its own right. “I think we’re tired of being taken for granted,” said Kaine. “We’re anxious to be relevant in presidential politics again.”

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