Obama's strength highlights changes in the South

Election 2008

October 26, 2008|By Paul West | Paul West,paul.west@baltsun.com

SUFFOLK, VA. - The solid South could be cracking beneath John McCain's feet.

Southern support for Barack Obama is building in states that have been reliably Republican for decades, polls show, and they might deliver a decisive verdict in next week's election.

Virginia hasn't gone Democratic for president in 44 years, but it is leaning Obama's way. He holds a narrower edge in other Southern battlegrounds: North Carolina, last carried by a Democrat in 1976, and Florida, which decided the 2000 race.

"The loss of a single one of those states would make it virtually impossible for McCain to win," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

McCain has sought to exploit the region's cultural divisions, putting himself squarely on the side of older forces that have held sway for decades.

A new McCain radio ad, now airing in the South, portrays Obama as out of step with "our America." A top McCain adviser provoked angry reactions when she claimed recently that Obama was losing the "real Virginia," those parts of the state beyond the Washington, D.C., area.

The latest poll numbers suggest a different reality: Voter trends are catching up with wider changes that have been under way for a long time in the old Confederacy.

"These are not old-timey rural states anymore. These are muscular metropolitan states," says Ferrel Guillory, director of the University of North Carolina's Program on Public Life.

The thriving bedroom communities of North Carolina's Research Triangle, Florida's I-4 corridor and Northern Virginia's high-tech suburbs are increasingly where Southerners live, and many of them are open to Obama's message.

"They may be fiscally conservative and live in mostly white neighborhoods," said Guillory, "but there is a sense that Obama represents, to them, a kind of turning of the page after George Bush."

Obama is avoiding states McCain will likely carry, such as Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee.

Instead, the Democrat is targeting the region's fastest-growing states, especially Virginia and North Carolina, where expanding economies have lured thousands of new residents, black and white, including those from outside the South.

Obama has gone deep into rural areas, hoping to chip away at McCain's big advantage among culturally conservative whites.

But Obama's greatest emphasis has been on the suburbs, including the rapidly growing outer suburbs that Republicans dominated in recent presidential contests.

Among the Democratic targets: Suffolk, Va., population 80,000.

"We're competing for every single vote here in the Old Dominion," vice presidential candidate Joe Biden told a rally yesterday at a half-filled local high school gym.

"We win here, and we win the presidency."

In this Tidewater community, not far from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, billows of white cover fields on the edge of town - a bumper cotton harvest, not snow. On Main Street, a statue of Mr. Peanut pays tribute to another cash crop.

But Suffolk's new identity is as the fastest-growing part of Hampton Roads, home to the world's largest naval base in Norfolk and the biggest swing area of this new swing state.

"Four years ago, I said that voters in the Tampa area would decide the election. This time, I honestly believe that whoever wins the Norfolk media market could be the next president," said Mo Elleithee, a Democrat with campaign experience in Florida and Virginia.

Public opinion surveys show a tight race in this region, the most populous in Virginia after the heavily Democratic D.C. suburbs. Privately, Democrats say they've never seen presidential poll numbers this good in Hampton Roads.

Biden's stop in Suffolk, which Bush carried four years ago, is a sign that Obama is so bullish on the state that he's taking the fight to where Republicans live.

McCain, who has made two visits to Hampton Roads in recent weeks, is fighting back with fresh appeals to the active-duty military families and retirees who are the backbone of the local economy.

But the military vote isn't monolithic.

Jonathan Alston of Suffolk, a lieutenant, junior grade, wore his Navy uniform to cast the first presidential vote of his life, an in-person absentee ballot. A political independent, he said he chose Obama, after months of indecision, primarily for his energy and tax plans.

"I pay more in taxes than I do for anything else," said the graduate of New Hope Academy in Landover, Md., and Georgetown University. "Obviously, I don't make over $250,000 a year, so Obama's not going to raise my taxes."

The 23-year-old African-American said racial pride wasn't really a factor in his decision.

"I don't want to say it's offensive [to suggest that], but civil rights is not an issue that really came up in the election," he said.

Across the country, African-Americans are expected to vote in record numbers, which is helping Obama in the South and elsewhere and could boost the prospects of other Democratic candidates on the Nov. 4 ballot.

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