Obama has looked to Va. as winnable Southern turf

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RICHMOND — President Obama has come to Virginia in the past when he needed a boost, and he returns Friday to begin a campaign-style tour to promote a jobs initiative that is likely to determine whether he is re-elected next year.

The morning after he unveils the plan to a joint session of Congress, Mr. Obama will be in Richmond hoping his plan catches fire in a key southern battleground state he won in 2008 and needs to win again in 2012 to serve a second term.

It also brings the decisive national debate to the doorstep of his fiercest House critic, Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, within an easy day’s drive for Washington’s political press corps.

“This is the issue,” said Ray Allen, the Richmond-based senior political strategist for Mr. Cantor. “It’s the issue Eric Cantor has been talking about for 2½ years — creating an environment for businesses to grow and create jobs — and it’s the issue that Americans in their daily lives are facing and worrying about.”

And Mr. Cantor won’t let the president have the stage totally to himself. Mr. Cantor will be holding his own high-profile job-creation news event at an undisclosed business in the Richmond suburb where he lives, Mr. Allen said.

With unemployment chronically mired at or above 9 percent nationally, Mr. Obama has no hope of reversing a sharp slide in the polls without a substantial turnaround in a struggling economy, said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato.

“He’s under water here right now, and he has 14 months to turn this economy around and prove that he can still win,” Mr. Sabato said.

A Quinnipiac University poll in June showed Mr. Obama in a dead heat in Virginia with an unnamed Republican candidate. Another 10 percent said their vote would depend on who the GOP nominee is. Since then, the American economy has been on a frightful slide along with Mr. Obama’s popularity.

“If he loses Virginia badly, he’s probably lost the election. He’s got to think about Virginia, Ohio and Florida. It would be very difficult to lose those three and still get to 270,” the number of electoral votes necessary to win the presidency, Mr. Sabato said.

But Mr. Obama was a long shot behind Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination when he came to Virginia the first time as a declared presidential contender in February 2007. He came away with then-Gov. Tim Kaine’s endorsement — critical at the time because Mr. Kaine was the first statewide elected official outside Mr. Obama’s home state of Illinois to back him. A year later, Mr. Obama easily defeated Mrs. Clinton in Virginia’s presidential primary.

Virginia had been virtually ignored by presidential candidates for decades until Mr. Obama put it in play three years ago, campaigning in the state 11 times from June through the November election day. He became the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson 44 years earlier to carry Virginia in a White House race, and only the second GOP loss since 1952.

On the eve of Congress’s March 2010 vote on his health care reforms, Obama led a campaign-style rally in support of the initiative at George Mason University in Fairfax to nudge on-the-fence Democrats toward his position. The measure narrowly passed.

Some of his Virginia sojourns, however, aren’t so successful.

In late October, Mr. Obama came to Charlottesville on a cold evening in his first campaign trip solely for an endangered Democratic House incumbent, but failed to save Rep. Tom Perriello from being unseated after one term, a casualty of the 2010 GOP off-year election sweep. A month earlier, he was in a working-class Richmond neighborhood for a staged and scripted “backyard conversation” in an effort to rally dispirited Democrats.

But if Mr. Obama’s primetime address to Congress on Thursday can take root with a leery, weary public, Virginia is not a bad place to plant the first seed, said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason.

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