By KASIE HUNT and STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press
PORTSMOUTH, Va. (AP) — Move over Ohio and Florida. Virginia is becoming the hottest new battleground in this year's race for the White House.
Shifting demographics have President Barack Obama fighting for another win in this Southern state four years after he became the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry Virginia in more than four decades. Republican rival Mitt Romney is banking on buyers' remorse as he works to prove that Obama's unlikely 2008 victory was a fluke.
Six months before Election Day, both sides concede that Virginia is truly up for grabs. And the outcome here could have dramatic consequences — for Romney especially.
"This may well be the state that decides who the next president is," Romney told supporters Thursday in coastal Portsmouth, Va. "You're going to hear it all, right here in Virginia."
Already, Romney allies and Obama's campaign are pouring money into television ads. And, by week's end, each candidate will have visited the state.
Romney spent two days campaigning here this week, his first Virginia trip since becoming his party's presumptive presidential nominee. Obama will be in the state on Friday and Saturday —what his aides are calling his first formal day of campaigning — before traveling to Ohio.
Four years ago, Obama executed a winning strategy by registering and turning out scores of minorities and young voters who long had sat on the political sidelines.
This year, Virginia — perhaps more so than any other state — will test whether he can cobble together a similar winning coalition amidst shifting demographics and despite a challenging economic environment.
Virginia has swung dramatically right in the years since the Democratic president took office — so much so, that Romney aides suggest that the state has become a lynchpin in their national path to victory.
"It's an important key in the overall map," Romney's political director, Rich Beeson, said.
Republican insiders go further, saying that it's hard to see Romney reaching the 270 electoral votes needed without the 13 that Virginia provides.
Indeed, an Obama win here could prove devastating for Romney, whose team understands the challenge of unseating a sitting president who has tremendous financial and organizational advantages. Already, Obama has established a comprehensive ground game in Virginia, with more than 13 offices spread across the state. Romney, who spent most of the year consumed by a bitter and expensive Republican primary, has yet to open one.
Beeson said Thursday that the Romney campaign would be "up and running" in Virginia in the "next week or two."
The Obama campaign argues that the stakes are higher here for Romney.
"We can win without Virginia, but we don't think we need to," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. "The truth is we have several pathways to get to 270 electoral votes."
Virginia's prominent role in the 2012 presidential election follows a decade of political and demographic changes that make this fall's outcome difficult to predict.
Although Democrats had not aggressively competed in a Virginia presidential contest for a generation, Obama carried the state by 6 percentage points over Republican John McCain in 2008, based on an outpouring of the state's high African American vote and heavy turnout in the metropolitan Washington area. Before Obama, no Democrat had won Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Republican George W. Bush had carried it easily, by 8 percentage points, in 2000 and 2004.
"Over the last 10 years, there has been a progression. It has gone from solidly red to trending blue to settling right in the middle. It's about the most-purple shade of purple you can find," said Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee.
Virginia has a high black-voter base. But the state is also home to a growing number of younger, well-educated voters flocking to northern Virginia, the region where Obama is credited with winning the state — and that makes it competitive again in 2012.
Obama carried the metropolitan Washington area of northern Virginia by 260,000 votes, about the same margin as he carried the entire state. Obama is hoping again to turn out big numbers in burgeoning suburbs such as Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, to offset the rising GOP tide elsewhere, where Romney is hoping he will prevail.
The political battle has already begun on the state's airwaves.
While Romney has yet to buy any ads directly, the pro-Romney group, Restore Our Future, has spent $354,000 in Virginia on a television advertising campaign that began running statewide Thursday. The ad highlights Romney's role in helping to find his business partner's lost daughter.
The Obama campaign spent $270,000 for a new ad — its third so far in Virginia — that began running statewide this week and accuses Romney of sending jobs overseas during his business career, reminding voters that the former Massachusetts governor had a Swiss bank account.
Virginia-based Republican strategist Chris LaCivita suggests that Obama is likely worried about his chances in Virginia if he's already using attack ads. But like others here, he says it's too early to make any predictions.
"To assume Virginia is going to go Republican is a dangerous thing to do," he said.
Women's issues, especially the recent debate over birth-control coverage by health insurance, play a disproportionate role in the northern part of the state, with its bustling suburbs. The rural economy, social issues and military policy are a problem for Obama in the more traditionally conservative parts of Virginia, such as the southeast, in places like Hampton Roads, where Romney campaigned this week.
Obama's team says it expects disproportionate turnout among the state's black voters. However, neither campaign is expecting the same record turnout that helped elect Obama the nation's first African American president.
Romney is banking on Virginia's recent Republican momentum to continue.
Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has endorsed Romney, won election in 2009. The following year, Virginia Republicans made gains in the U.S. House, and last year in the state legislature.
Romney aides are bracing for resistance in crucial northern Virginia to the candidate's proposed 10-percent cut in the federal workforce. Virginia, and especially northern Virginia, is home to the nation's highest concentration of federal workers.
Romney senior adviser Ed Gillespie, a former Virginia GOP chairman, joined Romney Thursday as he campaigned in Portsmouth, a port town with a significant industrial base and a large military presence. "This is going to be a hard-fought state," Gillespie said, dismissing polls that show Obama slightly ahead of his Republican challenger.
New polling, however, suggests that Obama is ahead of Romney. The Washington Post released results Thursday giving Obama a 7-point lead, 51 percent to 44 percent, among registered voters.
The winner in Virginia, however, could win a much larger prize.
"If Obama wins Virginia, I think he wins the election," said Elleithee, the Democratic strategist.
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont contributed to this report.
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