Barack Obama made history in Virginia four years ago when, on his way to winning the White House, he became the first Democratic presidential candidate to capture the state in more than four decades.
His surprisingly comfortable 53-46 percent win over Republican John McCain mirrored more closely than any other state the 2008 national result and provided potent evidence of demographic and economic changes that have been sweeping the Old Dominion.
It's more diverse, wealthier, better educated than ever before.
Its unemployment rate is 5.9 percent — 10th lowest in the nation — with an economy fueled by government spending.
Half of the nation's 10 highest-income counties are in Virginia, according to the U.S. Census, including the top three — all in vote-rich and increasingly new-resident-liberal Northern Virginia.
But Obama's path this election remains far from certain in this key swing state, where he's in a dead-heat race with Republican Mitt Romney, whose White House dreams rely heavily on capturing Virginia's 13 electoral votes. And where an equally hard-fought U.S. Senate race between two well-regarded former governors could determine whether Democrats retain control of Congress' upper chamber.
Months of stratospheric spending on advertising campaigns, a slew of state rallies and campaign swings and ballyhooed office openings, and an unprecedented influx of outside group money have done little to move voters, many of whom have simply stopped answering their phones and doors to avoid the onslaught.
"I have this cartoon vision, with each candidate pulling on one arm, and both have a bag of treats," says Dale City community activist Connie Moser, a 2008 Obama voter who remains undecided this year. "They are filling up my telephone messages every day — I feel so imposed upon."
The presidential race has essentially been frozen since Romney prevailed in the GOP primaries, with Obama running consistently but only slightly ahead on average. It's too early to tell how Obama's poor debate performance Wednesday night, and Friday's encouraging jobs numbers, might affect the race in Virginia. Both candidates headed to Virginia after the debate for campaign events later in the week.
"This election reminds me of 2004, when there was a steady, small lead for [President] Bush," says Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "The fundamentals of this race are essentially the same — a polarized electorate, and likely a very close re-election."
Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, and Virgil Goode Jr. of the Constitution Party, both on the Virginia presidential ballot, have each been polling at 2 percent or less in the state but could make a difference in a very close race.
"They would pull disproportionately from Romney," says Sabato. "I tell you, there aren't many Obama voters straying to either."
"How many votes could they pull? It's anybody's guess," he says. "Maybe 25,000, 30,000 at most." More than 3.7 million votes were cast in Virginia in 2008.
In the Senate race, Democrat Tim Kaine, former national party chairman, has begun to fare better than Obama in the polls and has opened a small but steady on-average lead over Republican George Allen. Kaine, like Obama, has been running remarkably strong among women voters in Virginia.
Allen is seeking to return to the Senate, where he served one term that ended five years ago. His re-election run was derailed when he referred to a campaign worker for his opponent, now-Sen. Jim Webb, by the derogatory term "macaca."
That leaves the presidential candidates, whose Virginia supporters are about equal in their enthusiasm and intensity of support, scrambling to convince a tiny sliver of the Virginia electorate — about 5 percent, according to Wednesday's Wall Street Journal/NBC/Marist Poll — who remain undecided.
The County Everyone Will Be Watching — Again
Earnie Porta recalls spending election night 2008 at a Democratic shindig, watching returns on a big-screen television.
"CNN was showing a map of Virginia, and when it showed Prince William County going for Obama, the place erupted," said Porta, the Democratic mayor of Occoquan, a picturesque river town in the eastern corner of the county. "It meant the contest was over."
The county, a onetime conservative stronghold, gave Bush 52 percent of its vote in 2004; Obama, who considered both Kaine and Webb as running mates, captured 58 percent.
Wedged between the high-population, more liberal counties in suburban Washington and "RoVA" — or the "rest of Virginia" — Prince William is an amalgam.
Its population is now more than 20 percent Hispanic, 20 percent black, and nearly 9 percent Asian. The median owner-occupied home value of $377,700 is more than $100,000 higher than the state average. Median household income is $91,000; the statewide average is $61,406.
Despite the county's continuing transformation, in the weeks leading up to the 2008 election, Porta did not think Obama would prevail. The state, he believed, was changing, but not as quickly as some thought, and not enough for an African-American presidential candidate to win.
He is more confident this time around, despite the fact that Obama was running further ahead of McCain at this point in the race than he is leading Romney.
And despite polls that suggest that while just over half of likely voters in Virginia say they have "a positive impression of Obama," to use Marist Poll language, more than half also said they think the nation is on the wrong course.
Fed Up, And Worried
John Gaugush, 46, a carpenter who lives near Manassas in east central Prince William County, says he'll mark his ballot for the "lesser of two evils" — Obama.
He says he sees Romney as "out of touch with the common man" and is despairing that the nation's political rifts are growing, along with the gulf between the "haves and have nots."
"I'm an independent," said Gaugush, attending Occoquan's annual craft fair recently with Wendy Leedy, 36, and their 3-month-old daughter, Isabel. "And I think most people in America are not far right, and not far left, but are forced to pick one or the other."
Says Kim Deal of Occoquan about the presidential choice: "I'd like to chuck them both out and start over again."
Deal, who voted for McCain in 2008, is a fiscal conservative, but she says she's also frustrated with the emphasis on social issues like same-sex marriage.
"I believe everybody should be able to get married — I don't want to hear any more about that," she said. "And I don't want somebody telling me what the definition of rape is."
Deal says she'll go to the polls in November; she's just not sure whether she'll cast a vote for president.
Pat Sivigny, a 60-year-old retired Marine from Occoquan, said he plans to vote for Romney but is looking for more specifics from the candidate — "not negative stuff, but specifics."
Obama, he says, "does not have a grasp of national security," and he saw the president as "stonewalling" the inquiry into the killing of America's ambassador in Libya and three other Americans.
He was asked about a recent speech by Webb, a Marine veteran and former Navy secretary under President Reagan, who at an Obama event in Virginia Beach noted obliquely that Romney chose not to serve in Vietnam. Webb also said that Romney insulted veterans by not mentioning Afghanistan during his convention speech, and with his recent "47 percent" comments. Sivigny had this to say:
"I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Sen. Webb. It will not influence my vote."
Virginia ranks third in the nation for the number of residents who are members of the military. Both Obama and Romney have been in the state wooing veterans, whose votes polls suggest are now fairly equally divided between the two candidates.
Just like the rest of their fellow Virginians.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.