Mr. Obama goes to Virginia

Barack Obama's focusing on the state as one he can turn Democratic this fall, so it wasn't surprising to see him there very soon after he became his party's presumptive nominee.


Chris Weaver
June 7, 2008 2:35AM (UTC)

BRISTOW, VA. -- In a parking lot flush with vendors, one man rifled through a box of political pins. "I'd like the 'change you can believe in," he said. "How much is that?"

On Thursday night, after his second full day as the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama was in Virginia, nodding in the direction of Appalachia -- the electoral stronghold of his former rival -- though he actually wasn't there.

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For his appearance only an hour's drive west of Washington, D.C., Obama's speech was tailored to the concerns of the rural, working class voters who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries. He pledged to end party divisions over "race, religion, region," and to win Virginia in November.

Jim Webb, the junior senator from Virginia, a Vietnam hero who wore his son's used combat boots throughout his 2006 campaign for the Senate, introduced Obama. "No one has stood taller" for working class people than Webb, Obama said of him.

Obama went on to respond to John McCain's criticism that he hasn't visited Iraq often enough by saying McCain needs to visit rural parts of the United States. "If John McCain spent a little more time in schools here in Virginia, or in my home state of Illinois, he would understand those children who are still languishing in ignorance, who can't even imagine a better life." He even offered McCain an itinerary that included "rural communities in Appalachia and Indian reservations in South Dakota, and Florida and south Texas."

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Halfway through his 30-minute speech, Obama paused to congratulate his fallen opponent. "Because of Sen. Clinton, I am a better candidate," he said. He used the speech to tick off issues that had been front and center in her campaign, listing reforms ranging from subsidies for higher education to "truly universal health care" to lowering gas prices before reminding supporters that they wouldn't get the carrots without some cost. "[Young people] don't want all this for free," he told the 10,000 person crowd. "They want to serve in the military as Jim Webb and his son have served," as well as in Peace Corps and other national programs.

Military service was absent from a recent commencement address Obama gave at Wesleyan University, even though the theme of the speech generally was national service. New York Times columnist Bill Kristol had hit him for that, and it was a potential misstep. Webb himself notes in his book "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America" that military service might be the kind most appealing to the people who live in Appalachia.

On Thursday night, military service was first on Obama's list. Still, he stuck to his message about Iraq and ended his speech with a call to "end the war and restore our nation."

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The overall message appealed to Virginians at the rally, like Craig Schwanke, whose nephew served in the war, but was discharged after complaining that his superior officers needlessly put him in harm's way. "At least he didn't come home in a body bag," Schwanke said, who is proud of his nephew's service but feels he was betrayed by the administration and his commanders on the ground.

On the way to Bristow, Washington's sprawling office parks and car pool lanes give way to white-fenced meadows and the occasional industrial complex. However, this quaint-looking exurb isn't really home to the Clinton supporters Obama needs to win over; he won the county by a 28-point spread in Virginia's Democratic primary. But it still may be an important proving ground for him. Mudcat Saunders, a Democratic strategist, helped Mark Warner become the state's governor by focusing some attention here. Now Saunders is on board with Obama, and it looks like he's hoping to do something similar this fall.

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Chris Weaver

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