Sunday, October 12, 2008

SUFFOLK, Va. | Sen. John McCain heads to Virginia on Monday with his most potent weapon — running mate Sarah Palin — to rejoin the electoral battle for a state that Republicans have owned for the past 10 presidential elections.

And it’s none too soon, say Republicans in a swing city in the southeastern corner of the state who are eager for a reason to hope for something or someone to rally around.

Polls show Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Mr. McCain of Arizona locked in a very close race in Virginia, with some polls showing Mr. Obama with a clear lead.

The McCain-Palin Monday morning rally in Virginia Beach will mark the second such event for the Republican presidential candidate since June. That compares with eight trips to Virginia by Mr. Obama, his running mate Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. or both over the same span. Former President Bill Clinton will campaign for Mr. Obama in Roanoke and in Richmond on Sunday.

Hampton Roads is a natural area for Mr. McCain, a Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. The region heavily relies on the military, with the world’s largest U.S. Navy base in Norfolk.

Mr. McCain fans Timothy and Sheree Blume of Suffolk, both 47, cautiously predict that Mr. McCain will squeak by in Virginia. As committed Christians, they pray he does but acknowledge that this election is very different. It’s competitive.

“There are more people involved in this election than ever. There’s just so much excitement, and it’s on both sides,” Mr. Blume said.

Suffolk, more than any other community in Hampton Roads, rocks its partisan allegiance back and forth, unlike solidly Democratic neighbors Norfolk and Portsmouth and reliably Republican Chesapeake.

In 2000, Suffolk narrowly supported Democrat Al Gore over Republican George W. Bush, but then sided with Mr. Bush four years later. And if the results are close in Suffolk, that means Virginia is likely to vote for a Democrat for president, said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

The Blumes spent part of their weekend at Suffolk’s annual Peanut Festival, where they volunteered to work in the local Republican Party’s tent. On Friday, amid the smell of fried food and the roar of carnival rides, people stopped to snap up tickets for Mr. McCain’s rally, many of them excited at the prospect of seeing Mrs. Palin, the pro-gun, pro-life Alaska governor who has galvanized conservatives like the Blumes, who also see the appeal of the Democratic ticket.

“Obama, I have to say, is one of the most charismatic speakers I ever saw,” said Mr. Blume, who calls Mr. Obama a socialist. “When he gave that speech at the [2004] Democratic convention, I called Sheree in and told her to look at this.”

A few storefronts down the street at Java 149, Navy veteran Skip Star said he’s backing Mr. Obama, and it’s all about the economy. He and his wife, Julia, bought the tony coffee shop just as the nation began a frightful descent into a recession, and they see Mr. Obama as the best hope for a clean break from a bleak status quo.

“It’s not that I don’t like McCain. I do. I’m an independent, and I voted for Bush the first time and [John] Kerry last time, but the way things are going now, I’ve just got to go with Mr. Obama,” said Mr. Star, who ranks Ronald Reagan as the best president in his 34 years.

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