- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

Democrats and Republicans say Virginia is up for grabs for the 2008 presidential candidates.

Democrats say Virginia residents could elect a president from their party for the first time in 42 years in part because of James H. Webb Jr.’s U.S. Senate victory and their back-to-back gubernatorial wins.

“I don’t think there is any question that Virginia is going to be a state that is going to be contested,” said C. Richard Cranwell, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. “I can think of no other reason why [former Republican National Committee Chairman] Ed Gillespie has been dispatched to bring his bag of dirty tricks to Virginia.”

Mr. Gillespie was named chairman of the state Republican Party less than a month after Mr. Webb unseated Sen. George Allen, shifting U.S. Senate control to Democrats.

Mr. Gillespie said his immediate focus is on the legislative races next year but that Mr. Webb’s win will motivate Democrats to try to make Virginia a battleground in the next race for the White House.

“It’s of increasing importance,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a very important state in the Electoral College in 2008. In a lot of ways, it’s a fire wall and Democrats are intent on breaking through it.”

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, agrees that Virginia could tilt either way if the anti-Republican sentiment in the midterm elections lingers.

“The reality is, if the circumstances are right, Democrats can be competitive in Virginia,” he said. “If the head winds for 2008 are comparable to what they were in 2006, then Virginia will be competitive in the presidential campaign.”

Attorney General Bob McDonnell, a Republican, disagrees, saying Mr. Webb’s win was tied to the “unique” political climate created by the Iraq war and did not represent a major change in party loyalty.

“I don’t see the center of gravity changing in Virginia,” he said. “I think philosophically it is still a center-right state, so it should be a Republican state.”

Political analysts and the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations suggest the war will continue to dominate national politics for the next two years and be a major talking point for presidential candidates.

The last time Virginia supported a Democrat for president was in 1964, when President Johnson defeated Sen. Barry Goldwater, Arizona Republican.

Since then, Virginia has fended off the Democratic tide that has dominated the East Coast from Maine to Maryland.

Even in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Virginia stuck with President Ford in 1976 while all of its neighboring states supported Democrat Jimmy Carter.

As a result, most Republican presidential candidates have used their money and manpower elsewhere.

“In the past, Republican candidates haven’t spent a lot of time here because they thought they’d win. And Democrats did not spend a lot of time here because they thought they couldn’t win,” Mr. Bolling said.

Democrats say Mr. Webb’s win and the their consecutive gubernatorial wins by Mark Warner and Timothy M. Kaine show that Virginia is becoming more of a two-party state.

“Clearly, things have changed,” said Delegate Brian J. Moran, an Alexandria Democrat who is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “Virginia is a competitive bellwether state. People are willing to listen to a centrist message.”

Mr. Cranwell said Republicans during the past election insisted that Virginia and Tennessee were the “fire walls” to holding the majority in the U.S. Senate. “Now one of those fire walls got scorched pretty bad in one place,” he said.

Much of what happens in 2008 in Virginia will depend on the candidates, and whether a Democrat can connect with the state’s large faith-based community, political analysts said.

Craig Shirley, a Republican strategist, said Virginia’s role in the election will be “extraordinarily important.”

“It is more than symbolically important because it is adjacent to Washington where the national media is,” he said. “They all pay attention to the trends in Virginia.”

Mr. Gillespie said his goal is to do a “good enough job” in 2008 that “Democrats shift their attention elsewhere.”

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