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Obama vows victory in Virginia

- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008

BRISTOL, Va. - Sen. Barack Obama pledged Thursday to break the 44-year lock Republican presidential candidates have had on Virginia, storming into Appalachia - where he failed to connect in the primary - and crossing the state for an evening rally in more Democrat-friendly Northern Virginia.

"This is our moment, this is our time, and if you will vote for me, I will win Virginia, we will win this election, and we will change the course of history," Mr. Obama said at the day's second rally in Prince William County.

At the same time, some of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's backers said a significant number of her supporters remain "upset and angry" over her defeat for the nomination, blaming sexism in the party and its primary process.

But earlier in the day, in this town of 20,000 on the Tennessee line, enthusiastic Obama supporters showed up to greet the senator from Illinois on his first campaign stump event since Mrs. Clinton's camp said her run will end Saturday. They thanked him for visiting the region, which they said Democrats have ignored.

"They'll come around. This part of the country has always been hard for Democrats, but it's changing," said Charles Gilmer, an 85-year-old dairy farmer from Lebanon, Va., who said after the town hall in Bristol that he thought Mr. Obama would win the general election.

Mr. Gilmer said some voters from the region were worried about the anti-American sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Mr. Obama's former pastor, but noted that Mr. McCain also has past scandals such as being accused of corruption in the 1991 "Keating Five" savings and loan investigation.

Mr. Obama said Mr. McCain's health care plan doesn't cover all Americans, "takes care of the healthy and the wealthy" and would weaken the employer-based health care system.

The McCain campaign immediately shot back, saying the freshman senator "has no record of bipartisan success on this issue and his proposal to put the government between Americans and their health care is a plan that even his allies on Capitol Hill think is unrealistic."

Virginia has long been a Republican Party bastion - the last Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 - but Democrats have won the past two statewide elections, and many strategists in both parties now consider it one of the states that are up for grabs in November.

"It says a lot about somebody about where they choose to start their campaign," said former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who won in 2001 in part by paying attention to towns like this one long ignored by Democrats.

Mr. Warner, now running for U.S. Senate, embraced Mr. Obama as someone who understands that good ideas don't come attached with a party label.

Rep. Rick Boucher, Virginia Democrat and an early Obama endorser, said he was a boy the last time a Democratic nominee stumped in the region, home to coal country.

"We have now waited for almost 50 years for the next major party nominee for the presidency to visit," Mr. Boucher said, adding that it's the first time since 1964 that the presidential candidates will "seriously compete" in Virginia.

Mr. Obama won Virginia's Feb. 12 primary by 29 percentage points over Mrs. Clinton, but he has struggled to win lower-income, white voters from the Appalachian regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

But Republicans warned that the Old Dominion would not turn blue so easily.

Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who is running for governor next year, acknowledged that Virginia will be competitive this fall but said Mr. Obama's record is "scant" and "undistinguished," and that the Democrat will have trouble pushing his platform throughout the state.

Rep. Thelma Drake, Virginia Republican, said Mr. McCain's military service would resonate with the roughly 1 million veterans living in Virginia. She also said Mr. Obama is not as qualified to be president as Mr. McCain.

Mr. Obama then made his way to the other side of Virginia, for an evening rally at the Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, where a crowd in the thousands erupted in thunderous applause and some shouted, "V-P," when Mr. Obama introduced his Senate colleague from Virginia, Jim Webb.

"If you're in a fight, and we're in a fight, you want Jim Webb to have your back," he said after offering effusive praise for his "friend" the governor, Tim Kaine - one of his earliest supporters last fall.

Mr. Webb, widely seen as a vice-presidential contender, said Mr. Obama had excited millions of voters and would do that in the fall.

Mr. Obama also worked Thursday to unify the party, announcing that he would keep Howard Dean at the helm of the Democratic National Committee, an affirmation of Mr. Dean's bottom-up rebuilding of the party across all 50 states. Still, Mr. Obama is installing one of his top strategists, Paul Tewes, to help expand the DNC staff and oversee party operations.

The move puts Mr. Obama's ample fundraising machine at the party's disposal. In so doing, Mr. Obama imposed on the DNC the same ban on money from federal lobbyists and political action committees that he has placed on his campaign.

The DNC has trailed its Republican counterpart in fundraising. Over the past 17 months, the Republican National Committee has raised $166 million to the Democratic National Committee's $82.3 million. The DNC also has spent heavily, leaving little cash on hand while the RNC has built up its reserves. At the end of May, the RNC had nearly $54 million in the bank to the DNC's $4 million.

That Republican advantage is overshadowed by Mr. Obama's sizable edge over Mr. McCain. At the end of May, Mr. McCain had raised $115 million and had $31.5 million in the bank. Mr. Obama has not announced his May totals, but at the end of April had raised $264 million and had $46.5 million in the bank.

Still, Mr. McCain of Arizona reported his best fundraising month in May, raising $21.5 million.

As Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders were moving quickly to unite the party in advance of Mrs. Clinton's concession event on Saturday, considerable evidence of raw feelings remained and her camp made bitter accusations that she had been mistreated and belittled because she was a woman.

Clinton supporters said there was still a lot of "mourning and grieving" among her grass-roots followers and that it will take sometime before they would be able to bury their disappointment and fully embrace Mr. Obama as their nominee.

Many still held out hope that he would put her on the ticket to reach out to her supporters, but Clinton campaign officials Thursday were sending signals that they were no longer pushing for the vice-presidential spot on the ticket, at least not overtly.

"There will be a significant number of Clinton supporters, a lot of them women, who are upset with what they perceive to be sexism within the Democratic Party and with the primary process and it will take many of these people some time to get over their anger and disappointment," said former DNC Chairman Steve Grossman, a Clinton supporter and fundraiser.

"It may be that for some of those people the only thing that will stoke their enthusiasm [for Mr. Obama] will be Hillary Clinton on the ticket as his vice-presidential running mate. That's a move that I wholly support because it will make the ticket more powerful and attractive to the voter bases that each appealed to throughout the primaries," Mr. Grossman said.

A CBS poll released Wednesday provided the latest round of support for Mr. Obama's struggles with Clinton supporters, especially women.

Twelve percent of Democrats said they will support Mr. McCain over Mr. Obama in the general election - higher than the 8 percent of Democrats who defected to President Bush in 2004. In addition, nearly a quarter of Clinton supporters - including a greater percentage of women - say they will back Mr. McCain in November.

But other Democrats with close ties to the party's campaign said that they expected Mrs. Clinton to send a strong message to her supporters Saturday to put her loss behind them and embrace Mr. Obama's nomination.

"She's going to be gracious and enthusiastic about what she says about Barack Obama and that will transfer to her supporters," said longtime party strategist Steve Elmendorf.

*Donald Lambro and Gary Emerling reported from Washington for this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.