Dispatch October 2008

Can Obama Win Virginia?

A report from Barack Obama's campaign in Loudoun County
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Leesburg, Virginia, in Loudoun County, is a Washington exurb grafted onto an antebellum Southern town. Forty miles northwest of the nation's capital, it has experienced an influx of residents that began with the opening of nearby Dulles airport in 1964 and has not yet abated. The commuter bus out to Leesburg from Washington drives past suburban office towers emblazoned with the names of such technology companies and government contractors as ManTech International Corp and Booz Allen Hamilton, which have driven the recent economic and demographic boom in Northern Virginia.

But pulling into Leesburg, the first thing one sees is not a Starbucks but a gun store: "Loudoun Guns," the strip mall sign proclaims. Downtown, about a mile away, is the historic center of town, which is built around a courthouse featuring a statue of a confederate soldier in front.

Leesburg might not seem like a natural place for a Democrat to visit. Named after an ancestor of Robert E. Lee, it is the county seat of Loudoun, which Kerry lost to President Bush by 12 points and Al Gore lost by 15.

But times are changing in Loudoun, and Obama believes he can overcome the Gore and Kerry precedents. In 2006, Loudon ranked among the ten fastest growing counties and among the ten wealthiest in the country. Democratic Governor Tim Kaine and Senator Jim Webb carried Loudoun in their respective 2005 and 2006 wins.

That trend is what prompted John McCain's senior adviser Nancy Pfotenhauer to say on MSNBC last week that "Democrats have just come in from the District of Columbia and moved into Northern Virginia, and that's really what you see there. But the rest of the state, real Virginia, if you will, I think will be very responsive to Senator McCain's message." Pfotenhauer might say Leesburg sits on the border of the "real" and "fake" Virginia.

If Barack Obama wins Loudoun County, he will all but certainly win Virginia's thirteen Electoral College votes. That's why he spoke in Leesburg this Wednesday afternoon in the large town park that—as even a local McCain supporter ruefully acknowledged—was the only venue in town big enough to hold the 15,000-person crowd.

But many in the crowd came from the Democratic-leaning suburbs closer to the District of Columbia, or even from the District itself. And a perusal of the campaign signs bedecking Leesburg's houses and front yards would seem to suggest that McCain has Obama quite outnumbered. From the columns of one house hung a giant white handmade banner: "Please Stop Abortion!"

Support for McCain was also on display in the Downtown Saloon, a biker bar with a collection of bras hanging from the ceiling, a "We Support Our Troops," banner on the back wall, a McCain poster in the window, and Fox News playing above the locals pulling at their beers. ("Better here than across the street," reads a sign in the window of the bar, which sits directly across from the court house.)

Scott Warner, the owner of the Saloon, who sports a goatee and a baseball cap with the Harley Davidson logo, says he put up the poster because he's a dedicated Republican. His views are more nationalistic than ideological: when asked why he supports McCain, he simply restated the campaign's slogan, "Country First."

Other McCain supporters said they were displeased with President Bush and unexcited about McCain. "I'm voting for McCain but I can't believe in the whole country these were the two best people they could come up with," said a retired firefighter named Dale, a middle-aged man who was smoking Marlboros and drinking Budweiser at the Saloon on Tuesday afternoon, and would not give his last name. "Sarah Palin was a bad choice; she's not ready," he added. "We got to look for new folks."

He said "leadership," was the reason he supports McCain, and expressed admiration for Colin Powell, despite Powell's recent endorsement of Obama. Powell is apparently a popular figure in Leesburg. Several local Republicans said they feared his endorsement would give Obama a boost among undecided voters.

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Ben Adler is a journalist in New York City. He has been a reporter for Newsweek, Politico, and The Nation and has written for The American Prospect, New York, and City Limits, among other publications.

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