OCCOQUAN, VA—When David Swavely put down roots in this snug eastern corner of Prince William County 28 years ago, it was a conservative bastion, amply stocked with the trees and quiet he sought when the Navy transferred him from California to the nation's capital, just a half-hour drive north. "But it's not so rural anymore," says the 71-year-old Republican, betraying a whiff of nostalgia during this riverside hamlet's recent fall craft fair. And maybe, Swavely also allowed, it's not so conservative either.
The county's northern border, which extends from the Potomac River northwest to beyond the Manassas Civil War battlefield, had long been considered the dividing line between liberal Fairfax County in Northern Virginia, or NOVA, and what political observers like to refer to as the more conservative ROVA, or "rest of Virginia." But now, with Democratic nominee Barack Obama in a tight race here with Republican John McCain for the state's coveted 13 electoral votes, Swavely isn't the only one speculating that old political lines and perceptions could be redrawn.
This is a state, after all, where only one Democratic presidential candidate has won since 1948. And that was 44 years ago, when Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater. But voters here also picked the nation's first black governor, Democrat Douglas Wilder, in 1989. And they've put Democrats in their top elective offices, from Gov. Tim Kaine to U.S. Sen. Jim Webb. (Obama considered both as potential running mates.) In November, former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner is expected to easily pick off the second Senate seat, now held by Republican Sen. John Warner, who is retiring.
In the state's February primary, Obama drubbed Hillary Clinton by nearly 30 points and McCain handily held off a challenge by popular conservative Christian Mike Huckabee. And in the meantime, Virginia has become perhaps one of the unlikeliest of battleground states. But so it is: Obama currently holds an average 3 percentage point lead in state polls, which means it's anybody's race to win or lose.
Obama can make history, says Toni-Michelle Travis, a government professor at George Mason University, "but he has to become more concrete in his platform. People think he's a wonderful speaker, but they want to know specifically what he's going to do." The economic turmoil, Travis and state political strategists say, has played well for Obama here, and may even help him make inroads in the state's rural southwestern hills, where he faces his toughest sell.
But Virginia, with its robust military tradition, high levels of active duty and retired military, and pockets of Christian conservatives and culturally conservative Democrats, remains friendly ground for McCain and Sarah Palin, his running mate. Palin invigorated conservative Republican women here like Sherry Snyder, 52, of Chesterfield, a town just outside the state capital of Richmond in the southeast corner of the state. "She was like a miracle," says Snyder, who, along with her sister, Harriett Anderson, 54, had joined the throngs checking out the local craft booths. Says Harriet: "I cried when he named her. She says things that Senator McCain is afraid to say," including her opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
Lyn Regan, 58, of Springfield, who was helping her brother, Charlie DeGraw, sell "Nobama" and "I love Sarah Palin" T-shirts, teared up when talking about her Vietnam Vet husband, who died five years ago from the effects of Agent Orange. She says simply that McCain is "powerful and strong and it will be my honor and privilege to vote for him."
Occoquan's popular Democratic Mayor Earnest Porta says that political change is occurring in Virginia, but not as rapidly as some Democrats may think and, this year, Obama's race is one reason why. "There really is a shift toward the state turning blue," Porta says, standing in a scrap of shade next to the county Democrats' booth. "But it's not as aggressive as some Democrats say." The mayor has been canvassing door-to-door since the 2004 presidential race and says he has met "a significant number of independent-leaning Democrats, older white voters, who say of Obama, "He scares me" or "He makes me feel uncomfortable." "You want to engage them, but they're talking about something that's very hard to articulate," Porta says. "My hope is they watch the debates and get some sort of comfort level because the only person who can convince them is him."