WASHINGTON – Editor's note: This article is the first in an occasional series about unexpected swing states in the 2004 presidential race.
Virginia has just 13 electoral votes, but a Kerry victory here could spell disaster for President Bush, demonstrating a sign of weakness in a traditionally safe GOP state.
Old Dominion has been a Republican stronghold for decades, but the Democratic presidential contender is gearing up his campaign in what some analysts and surveys suggest could be a toss-up state.
Kerry has spent $750,000 on advertising here, and popular Democratic Gov. Mark Warner (search) has boasted that the Massachusetts senator has a shot at taking the state. A Rasmussen poll from May shows Bush leading Kerry by just two points in the state: 47 to 45. That falls within the margin of error.
State GOP officials say they aren't planning to rest on their laurels after four decades of success, but insist that a Kerry victory is unlikely.
"We're not taking anything for granted, but Virginians support President Bush's leadership," said Republican Party of Virginia (search) spokesman Shawn M. Smith. "The Republican Party of Virginia is organizing to get out the vote and tell voters of the vast differences between President Bush and Kerry."
Virginia voters are primarily focused on two issues: the economy and the war on terrorism, say observers. Democrats say Kerry supporters in Virginia are energized about their candidate.
"There is a built-in sense of enthusiasm and momentum for John Kerry that we're just sitting back and watching in amazement," said Laura Bland, director of communications for the Democratic Party of Virginia (search). "I've heard people say that there is a sense of hope and optimism about this camp and candidate that we haven’t seen in a really long time in Virginia."
Lyndon Baines Johnson was the last Democrat to win the state, in 1964, and Virginia has faced several changes since then. Its demographics are different now, and the moderate Washington suburbs have a growing weight in relation to the more conservative southern parts of the state.
Additionally, Republican margins vary each year. Although Bush beat Al Gore in Virginia by nine percentage points in the last election, in 1996 Bill Clinton lost the state to Bob Dole by just two points.
Virginia may be trending in Kerry's direction, but the Yankee senator still has an uphill battle to win the state that was the heart of the Confederacy, some analysts say.
"Virginia is not in play unless Kerry is winning nationally by a wide margin. Virginia is about six to seven percentage points more Republican than the country as a whole in presidential elections," Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics (search), told FOXNews.com.
In 2000, many of the rural areas broke for Bush, while Gore did better in the urban precincts. Party officials from both sides say the same breakdown is likely this year, but a key region will be northern Virginia, which the 2000 candidates split.
"You're always going to look at what happens in northern Virginia. It's just a matter of population," Bland said. "It's going to be pretty important for Kerry to focus on where he is strong, and I certainly think that he will do very well in northern Virginia."
Perhaps the key to Virginia is Fairfax County (search). Close to Washington and Virginia's most populous county with about 1 million residents, Fairfax is almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. In 2000, Bush edged Gore in the county by 48.9 percent to 47.5 percent.
Both parties are active in the county and know it will be a battleground.
"Not only do the Democrats have a lot of enthusiasm, but I'm also running into Republicans who say they voted for Bush last time, but they're sure not doing it again," said Fairfax County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Ginny Peters. She and her Democratic allies are rallying volunteers, planning rallies and identifying Democrats.
The Republicans are countering their efforts through volunteer recruitment, voter identification and other initiatives, said Eric Lundberg, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee.
The county has been growing in part through immigration, and it has substantial and expanding Hispanic and Asian populations. But the Republicans aren't conceding anything.
"We are going to aggressively reach out to the changing demographics of Fairfax County. We think those demographics are ripe for Republican votes," Lundberg said.
According to Lundberg, county residents are particularly concerned about terrorism. "Fairfax County lost residents on 9/11," he said. "Tremendous numbers of residents work in the White House and on Capitol Hill. ... What the occupant of the next White House is going to do to make sure that doesn’t happen again is critical."
Another variable in Virginia is Kerry's vice presidential choice. A selection from the South would help, and picking Gov. Warner could put the state in the bag.
Warner appeared with Kerry on Memorial Day weekend, and the candidate plans to return to the state, where he will appear with Warner. But with such a tight lip from the campaign on the vice presidential selection, Warner's viability is largely unknown.
With Warner on the ticket, Virginia "would definitely be competitive even if Kerry were not winning [nationally] by a wide margin," said Sabato.
Bland said Warner's 2001 gubernatorial victory led to a surge of optimism among the Democratic Party in the state.
"We certainly are extraordinarily proud of our governor. He's our party leader. We think that he has transformed what it means to be a Democrat in Virginia. He's made it safe for John Kerry to campaign in Virginia."
Warner has encouraged Kerry to return soon.
"I think Virginia has a chance to be very competitive this fall," Warner said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor earlier this month.
Although Virginia might look like a competitive race today, Sabato warned of making predictions with the election months away.
"June wisdom rarely is accurate come November. The world is going to turn over several times between now and Nov. 2. But it certainly does suggest that Bush is in trouble and that the Bush camp needs to redouble its efforts, to say the least."