Can Obama Win Virginia?

A report from Barack Obama's campaign in Loudoun County

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.

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.