President Obama is bringing his counter-GOP convention tour Wednesday to the dead-heat battle for Virginia, a state where he enjoyed a historic win in 2008 but where he and fellow Democrats have faced a series of obstacles and setbacks ever since.
Mr. Obama knows he can count on Northern Virginia, a reliable liberal stronghold, while the southernmost areas are ruby-red Republican.
It’s what happens in the counties in between that matters, and Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia and thousands of students who helped hand Mr. Obama a 5-point edge four years ago, could play a key role in keeping the state in Mr. Obama’s win column in November.
In the final two months of the campaign, Mr. Obama needs the energy and commitment of younger voters to help him with his ground game — knocking on doors and getting out the vote — so he is headed to Charlottesville on Wednesday just one day after he made the same direct appeal to college students at Colorado State University.
Polls show Mr. Obama still leading Republican rival Mitt Romney with college-age voters, but the president faces the added challenge this year of trying to convince young people of his economic credentials as they prepare to enter a shaky job market, while Mr. Romney says the president has not lived up to his promises on job creation.
Striving to overcome the shaky economic outlook, Mr. Obama during stops at colleges in Iowa and Colorado on Tuesday focused on issues he thought might play well with the college crowd — clean energy, lower costs for student loans, health care, contraception, gay marriage, and ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the president has a tougher row to hoe in Virginia, where Republicans have regrouped since 2008 and Democrats have suffered a series of blows.
Just one year after Mr. Obama’s 2008 win in the state, Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate for governor, lost decisively to GOP rival Bob McDonnell. Mr. Deeds enjoyed rocky relations with the White House, which considered him a weak candidate who failed to reach out to key constituencies that contributed to Mr. Obama’s victory.
By 2010, after the passage of the president’s health care law, the political pendulum had swung so far to the right that Republicans picked up three House seats, ousting freshmen Democratic Reps. Glenn Nye and Tom Perriello, who sailed to election on Mr. Obama’s coattails in 2008, as well as veteran Rep. Rick Boucher, who was first elected in 1982.
Mr. Perriello, whose district includes Charlottesville but stretches to the North Carolina border, lost despite Mr. Obama’s help — and some observers argue because of it.
“The health care law was extremely unpopular in the state — still is, as a matter of fact,” said Chris LaCivita, a veteran Republican campaign operative who has run numerous races in the state. “Tom Perriello was basically Obama’s ‘Mini-Me’ in that part of the state, and he was defeated.”
In addition to large pockets of Northern Virginia, the president can count on the support of most black voters, who make up 20 percent of the state’s voters, as well as the Democratic strongholds of Richmond and Charlottesville, so the race will be a tough fight until the end.
Other GOP-leaning areas, such as Lynchburg, Danville and Martinsville, have been hard hit by the economy and the loss of manufacturing jobs. Mr. Obama’s environmental policies have alienated other voters in the western part of the state who depend on the coal industry and paper mills.
In 2008, Mr. Obama attracted voters in the Hampton Roads area, a military stronghold with a high black population. But this year, the communities in that area, which are dependent on the military and robust defense spending, are bracing for budget cuts and blame Democrats more than Republicans for the predicament that threatens the local economy.
“Mr. Romney and [Republican Senate candidate George] Allen are using the coming defense cuts very effectively in the area,” said Ray Allen, a longtime Republican strategist in Virginia. “The largest naval base in the free world is in Norfolk and the military is strongly against [Mr. Obama] this time around. But it’s more than that — the whole economy there depends on the military. It permeates the culture and the coming cuts will devastate the economy down there.”
Democrats, however, argue that Republicans are reading too much into their gains in 2010 because voter turnout in a midterm election is barely half that of what it is in a presidential contest.
“What happened in 2009 and 2010 is not relevant,” said Paul Goldman, a former adviser to Sen. Mark R. Warner and then-Gov. Douglas Wilder, both Democrats.
Mr. Goldman argued that Republicans are losing ground in the state in part because they want to “balance the budget on the backs of federal workers,” and there are thousands of federal employees and retirees, as well as government contractors, in Northern Virginia and throughout the state turned off by that message.
“It may be a good strategy in other states, but it’s a bad strategy here,” he said.