CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — When Barack Obama thinks about the road to the White House, he knows he can't get through states such as Virginia with the road map that other Democrats such as Al Gore or John Kerry used.
Each one fell short of cracking the state, then fell short of the White House. No matter how much they thought they could compete in a state that already was growing more open to their party at the state level, there simply weren't enough Democrats to push them over the top in presidential elections.
Now Obama thinks he's found the key — not just to Virginia but to other states that traditionally vote Republican for president, such as North Carolina — that could help him change the political map, turn Republican red states blue and win the presidency.
He's adding more Democrats.
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Intensive efforts to register new voters, such as a mid-September rally in this college town with candidate spouses Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, are helping to swell voter rolls with young people, transplants from other states and folks who've never voted before — all people Obama thinks he can win.
They're people such as Julia Duncan, a fourth-year student in history and government at the University of Virginia and an Obama supporter.
She registered to vote in Virginia recently, transferring her registration from California because her vote is needed more in a closely contested state such as Virginia than it is in safely Democratic California. College students legally have the option of voting where they attend school.
"It's such an important state. My vote will count more here," said Duncan, who likes Obama in part because, she said, he'd reshape foreign policy, work more with allies and restore American standing in the world.
"We have a real chance here," she said. "With a surge of support from young people, some of these states are going to be in play that weren't in play in the past."
Virginia has registered a net of 208,798 new voters this year, according to figures that the State Board of Elections released in mid-September.
While Virginia doesn't register voters by party, a majority of the newly registered voters were 35 or younger. Registration did jump in many traditionally Democratic areas.
The Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, which have been trending toward the Democrats, gained more than 38,000 voters. Richmond, the heavily Democratic state capital, gained more than 8,000. Charlottesville, which includes the University of Virginia, gained 1,817 voters.
There are some crucial caveats, however, that should give pause to Obama fans. First, Obama probably will need huge voter turnouts in suburban Washington,
Richmond, Norfolk and Charlottesville to offset Republican votes elsewhere.
"Obama is weak, very weak, really weak, in southwestern and western Virginia," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "There's no question he's weaker there than Gore or Kerry."
The key reason that Obama could get swamped in those rural Appalachian areas, Sabato said, is race.
Second, history offers a warning: Democrats also were excited about a surge of new voters in 2004.
They were people such as Karen Anderson, an Internet-technology consultant and liberal Democrat who moved from Massachusetts to Charlottesville five years ago. She likes Obama because "he's for working people," would raise taxes on the wealthy and would end a "jingoistic" foreign policy that she said had alienated the rest of the world.
She's one of the many people who've changed the demographics of Virginia in recent years and made it much more open to Democrats, at least on the state level. Democrats have won the governor's office in back-to-back elections, took a U.S. Senate seat in 2006 and are widely expected to take the other one this year.
However, even with the addition of 273,000 new voter registrations such as Anderson's in 2004, the state still went to Republican President Bush over Kerry by a margin of 262,000 votes.
"It didn't mean a hill of beans," said Robert Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "The added voter registrations are going to work to Obama's advantage. But I'd caution against saying it's a silver bullet."
Registration has risen in Republican areas as well, perhaps not as much as in the Democratic areas, but still enough to hearten Republicans.
In the Hampton Roads region, filled with military veterans and retirees, registration has risen by more than 20,000, for example. The area also has a large African-American population, however, which could be registering for Obama as well.
The new X factor in the state is Republican running mate Sarah Palin, who's excited the party's conservative base and moderate Republicans, too, in places such as vote-rich Fairfax County, just outside Washington.
Jim Stievatter of Herndon, for example, was looking for someone who could change the way government works, someone who might break the partisan gridlock and get things done. A lifelong Republican, he was undecided until the conventions, maybe even leaning toward Obama.
"McCain was a little too old, too entrenched," he said. "But his selection of Palin changed that. Her record in Alaska, of shaking things up, that was a breath of fresh air."
Joe Jackson of Fredericksburg is still skeptical about McCain on immigration, but likes Palin for the prospect that the two of them will challenge special interests. "I'm impressed with what she did standing up to the oil companies, for instance."
Sandee Parrish, who works at a hair salon in Herndon, a Washington suburb, said she already liked McCain, particularly for his record of military service. She likes Palin as well. "She's great. Young. Vivacious. A little more extreme pro-life than I am, but I like her."
Ultimately, there's no doubt the state is in play, offering a real chance that the Democrats could win it for the first time since the Lyndon Johnson landslide in 1964.
Yet with resurgent support for the Republicans, it's still a challenge for Obama to change the map.
Said Sabato: "It's a tossup that is red-tinged."
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