President Obama drew an overflow crowd Wednesday in this picturesque college town, just as he had three times before, but a measure of the magic was gone.
As a candidate vying for the Democratic nomination in 2007, he campaigned in downtown Charlottesville's cavernous, tented amphitheater and packed it with thousands who screamed themselves hoarse on a chilly autumn evening. In 2010, he returned on an even colder October night in a vain effort to bail out one-term Democratic U.S. Rep Tom Perriello's re-election bid.
Now, with polls showing the quest for Virginia's 13 electoral votes virtually deadlocked between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, thousands again queued two or three abreast under a hot sun in a line that stretched for nearly a half mile down Charlottesville's tony brick-paved pedestrian mall.
This time, some of the newness and excitement seemed to have worn off.
Obama supporter William Proffitt, a University of Virginia junior raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., was stuck in a line at least four blocks away from the nTelos Wireless Pavilion, intent on waiting it out. After all, the line behind him was growing at a rate of about 30 feet every minute. By 1 p.m., it snaked back more than eight blocks.
"This is the first time I've ever seen a president in person," the political studies major said. "But I'm not as excited as I was four years ago. It no longer has the distinctiveness that it used to have. That was amazing, seeing the first African-American president elected, but that died off within a year."
LaSandra Jones, 48, of Charlottesville, was nearly seven blocks and two hours from the point where she would pass through a slow, painstaking security check. She, too, was undaunted, saying she would work as hard for the president's re-election as she did four years ago, when Obama became the first Democrat in 44 years to win Virginia in a presidential race.
"I'm happy with what he's done, but he came into a mess and he's still trying to straighten it out," Jones said. He's not as far along as she hoped he would be, she conceded, and that probably accounts for this year's more subdued energy.
"Lots of people wanted him to come in and get it done right now, but he said from the start that this would take eight years," she said.
The Obama campaign wanted to its rally on UVa's campus, but school officials declined the request after determining that holding the event there would cancel or disrupt classes on the semester's second day and shut down adjacent buildings for the entire day. So the campaign opted for the downtown pavilion.
Obama's Charlottesville stop was the last of three rallies on swing-state college campuses that included Iowa State University and Colorado State University. It was his 12th campaign event in Virginia this year.
The enthusiasm gap is critical to reprising Obama's 2008 triumph in battleground Virginia, and he took aim at it in his remarks, appealing directly to the young -- specifically those college-age -- who were the vanguard of his volunteer corps.
"The point is, Virginia, your vote mattered, your voice made a difference. Change was possible because you made it possible. We can't get tired now because we've got more to do," he said. "In November, your vote will matter more than ever."
A few moments later, when his reference to Romney and the Republican National Convention evoked derision from the crowd, Obama cut them off with a clear directive: "Don't boo. Vote!"
In February of 2008, Obama laid early claim to Virginia by trouncing Hilary Clinton in the Democratic primary. By late spring, when he had secured the nomination, he had legions of energized, organized and youthful volunteers, linked as no campaign before by text messaging, social media and sophisticated voter-identification and registration drives.
By Election Day, dispirited Republicans weary from an Iraq War going badly and an economy going even worse under President George W. Bush were steamrolled in Virginia by the energized Democrats' get-out-the-vote juggernaut. And when Virginia was called for Obama on election night, it clenched the presidency for him.
But that was then.
John Froitzheim, a professor of African politics and comparative politics at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, stood with his wife so far from the pavilion that it wasn't even in sight. He likely was among thousands who never made it into the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd under the covered pavilion and clustered around the perimeter of the facility.
"No, it's not the same. There was an appreciation then of what was happening in overcoming that racial barrier," Froitzheim said. "The enthusiasm is a bit muted."
For him, Wednesday was as much a matter of personal passion as an academic and professional exercise.
"I support President Obama because when I look at him, I kind of see me," Froitzheim said. "Difficult early life, single parent, worked through college, earned his law degree and was editor of the Harvard Law Review. Think about that."
While about 7,500 people crammed into the sweltering, standing-room-only open-air pavilion, hundreds more stood outside its fence, in some places jammed together 40 to 50 feet deep. The campaign, citing a policy no one could explain, refused to disclose how many tickets it distributed to Wednesday's event.
But such a crowd in the home of UVa and its progressive-minded students and faculty is no surprise, said Froitzheim, who lives in Charlottesville but commutes the 122 miles to Williamsburg each week. The city proper is among the most dependably Democratic in Virginia every year, an island in a conservative-voting rural region bounded to the west by the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In Virginia, polls show the race a practical dead heat between the president and Romney, who hopes to make the case that Obama's 2008 victory was an aberration, not the start of a Democratic trend.