- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The purple hue of Prince William County is expected to play a pivotal role in deciding whether Virginia swings to Republican red or Democratic blue in next month’s presidential election.

The exurban jurisdiction southwest of the District is home to roughly 360,000 residents and will be a top prize in the contest between Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama - a battlefield within the larger war for which candidate will win the likely swing state.

“Prince William County is ground zero for the changing politics of Virginia,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a professor of political communication at George Mason University in Fairfax. “You’ve got a significant conservative base in the county, but you also have a lot of new arrivals and a lot of young voters who have rapidly changed the dynamic of outer-ring suburban counties in Virginia.”

President Bush won Prince William with roughly 52 percent of the vote in 2000 and 2004. However, as in much of Northern Virginia, signs that the county is turning blue are readily apparent: Gov. Tim Kaine and Sen. Jim Webb, both Democrats, won the county in their election bids in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

The county’s close proximity to the District also means younger residents in search of affordable housing have moved there in recent years. Hispanics and blacks - two voting blocs that overwhelmingly favor Mr. Obama in polls - each make up roughly one-fifth of Prince William’s population.

“One of the Republican Party’s basic problems is that it is overwhelmingly a white party,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “In any jurisdiction where the populations of various minority groups are growing, Democrats are doing better. That’s something Republicans simply have to correct.”

The county’s population boom - the number of residents grew by 27 percent between 2000 and 2006, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates - has translated to a surge in new voters as well. There have been 23,500 new voters registered in the county since the beginning of this year, according to the state Board of Elections.

Such a target-rich environment has attracted the attention of both the McCain and Obama campaigns.

Mr. McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, have traveled to the state together or apart on four dates so far, including a rally held Oct. 18 by Mr. McCain in Woodbridge. Mrs. Palin was scheduled to make three in-state stops Monday.

“We believe it’s going to be a very important source of votes that we need to turn out for Nov. 4,” McCain spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said, “but we have focused very heavily yet very evenly across Northern Virginia.”

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, holds a roughly eight-point lead over Mr. McCain in the county, according to an Oct. 15 survey by Politico and InsiderAdvantage. A Virginia Commonwealth University survey released Monday showed that Mr. Obama also holds an 11-point lead over Mr. McCain among likely voters statewide.

The Illinois senator has made eight trips to Virginia, while his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, has made five. Mr. Biden appeared in Woodbridge Sept. 23, and the Obama and Democratic coordinated campaigns have opened four offices in Prince William.

“You’ve got some people who have been there for a very long time, some people who haven’t been there,” said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia. “It’s a really interesting county to look at as a battleground for what’s going on in Virginia.”

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