Dispatch October 2008

Can Obama Win Virginia?

A report from Barack Obama's campaign in Loudoun County

Although Dale voted for George W. Bush both times, he's unhappy with Bush's record and probably will vote for Mark Warner, the Democratic former Virginia governor who is heavily favored to win a Senate seat—but not for Obama. "Obama is condescending and elitist," said Dale.

Raymond Jackson, a twenty-seven-year-old African American who lives outside Leesburg, also expressed reservations about Obama. He owns a scrap metal recycling business that he runs out of his truck and he does not have health insurance. To save money on gas he takes two buses instead of driving when he goes to the shopping mall, where I met him on Tuesday. "Obama will raise taxes and McCain will cut taxes," he said. He hasn't studied Obama's plan very closely: only people making more than $250,000 per year would see their taxes increase, and unless he is sending it all to the Cayman Islands, he does not fall into that category. He strongly opposes the Iraq War and says he may vote for a change in direction on foreign policy. But he may be sufficiently dissatisfied by both choices, Jackson says, that he will not vote at all.

Clearly Obama struggles in Leesburg with the same challenges that have bedeviled him nationally: the perception that he will raise people's taxes; an impression that he is haughty; and the reality that some voters simply will not vote for an African American.

The rally seemed somewhat tailored to the local culture and the challenges it may pose for Obama. It opened with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and featured a singing of the national anthem, as well as a prayer led by a local preacher, and a soundtrack that mixed in some country music with the funk and soul more typically played at Obama rallies.

In his speech, Obama addressed the tax issue head-on, going on at length about how his rates will be lower than Ronald Reagan's and 95 percent of workers will get a tax cut from him. He asked the audience to "raise your hands if you make less than a quarter of a million dollars a year." Even in gold-plated Loudoun County, almost every arm shot up.

And, unsurprisingly, Obama played Pfotenhauer's "real Virginia" line to maximum effect. "This looks like the real Virginia to me and you look like a bunch of Virginians," began his extended riff. He later used the subject to segue artfully into his now-familiar refrain about how there is no "red or blue" America.

To some Virginians, Pftonauer's comments may have been racially coded. Marquez and Rachelle Mitchell, a young African-American couple from nearby Herndon who came to see Obama speak, said that Obama's biggest challenge in winning Virginia will be overcoming the "old school mentality," of many Virginians. "The more 'real Virginia' you get, the more race is an issue," said Marquez.

But Obama avoided any explicit mention of race. The closest he came was his boilerplate reference to his background toward the end of his speech. "Some of us had grandparents or parents who said…. I may not have a lot of money, but maybe my child will run for Senate. I might live in a small village but maybe someday my son can be president of the United States of America."

That line generated predictably enthusiastic applause among the thousands of fans filling out the green field. But they probably aren't the ones Obama needs to convince.

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Ben Adler is a writer in Washington, DC. He has written for Newsweek, The American Prospect, The Washington Monthly and The Politico.

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