Fall campaigns blast off in Virginia this week

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Nominees? Who needs nominees? The fall presidential campaign opens this spring in Virginia long before President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney gets his party's nomination.

Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, comes to Virginia for an Arlington fundraiser Wednesday and a campaign event at a maritime services company in Portsmouth, both with Gov. Bob McDonnell at his elbow.

The Democrats get revved up all week for a fall campaign kickoff event in Richmond, a city where Obama has been a frequent visitor both as a candidate and as president.

For decades, Republican-voting Virginia was an afterthought in national campaigns - taken for granted by the GOP and considered a lost cause by Democrats.

Obama in 2008 became the first Democrat to carry Virginia in a presidential race in 44 years, with the Virginia GOP then in disarray and on a six-year string of election losses. There were disagreements over direction in Virginia between then-Republican Party of Virginia leader Jeff Frederick and the campaign of the nominee, Sen. John McCain. An unpopular Republican incumbent, George W. Bush, with a war going poorly in Iraq and an economy in a frightening free fall forced McCain to swim upstream, even in conservative Virginia.

Democrats rode a crest of enthusiasm, from an intense primary Obama won handily in February to a peak in November, marshaling waves of determined young voters and minorities into disciplined, remarkably organized campaign that revolutionized the use of social media.

That was then.

Now, Virginia Republicans say they're ready, and they pledge that Democrats won't out-organize or outwork them.

"After the 2008 election and going into the 2009 governor race, we re-evaluated everything, including how we did voter contact, how we targeted, who we spoke to, how we spoke to people, and we really revamped our entire operation for 2009," said David Rexrode, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia.

On the framework of the GOP coordinated campaign that elected McDonnell governor in a rout, the party built and refined its data, its volunteer structure, and its presence across Virginia, now with 11 satellite offices statewide.

It paid off with Republicans sweeping the 2009 races for the top three state offices, winning three U.S. House seats in 2010, and last year when the GOP expanded its majority to two-thirds of the 100-member House of Delegates and won two Senate seats. They pulled even with the Democrats at 20 Senate seats apiece yet seized a majority thanks to Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's tie-breaking vote.

"We decided we were going to go in every precinct, that we weren't just going to ignore precincts because they voted Democratic," Rexrode said in a Tuesday afternoon teleconference with journalists. "We view this not just a next election. We try to build it as a continual organization. We use every election to build for the next."

"We weren't just going to stop our volunteers from working when the election ended last year. The phone banks and the door-to-door ended with the General Assembly elections last November, but we were making voter identification calls in November and December," he said.

On Tuesday, they previewed a new "Social Victory Center" on Facebook that Republican volunteers and activists can use to help with party outreach and coordinate activities and support efforts for the coordinated GOP campaigns this year.

Democrats know this time will be different. Gone is the advantage of being the challenger advocating change, the insurgent spirit of rallying against a government that's worn out its welcome. But they have the advantage of an improving economy, fuel prices that - for now - are falling, and the incomparable megaphone of the White House.

"Obama had a lot of excitement around him and that was driving the turnout," said Roanoke lawyer C. Richard Cranwell, who was the Virginia Democratic Party chairman four years ago. "This time it's going to be a different election."

He said the 2008 game plan won't work again. "Every general (who) plans for the last war and every politician that plans for the last campaign is going to get beat," he said.

Democratic Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the first elected black governor in U.S. history, said Democrats need to find a way to compensate this year for excitement created four years ago by the unmatchable historical achievement of electing the first black president.

"The real question is, what do you replace the excitement with? New voters? Young voters? The minority community? Senior citizens?" Wilder said.

The answer could be women, Cranwell and Wilder said. Republicans alienated many female voters with a package of anti-abortion legislation that muscled through the GOP-ruled General Assembly. Del. Jennifer McClellan said last week the issue will be important because Democrats won't let women forget.

The best-known measure, which McDonnell signed into law, requires women to undergo - and pay for - an ultrasound abdominal exam before having an abortion. It was denounced by civil liberties groups, lampooned by television comedians, scourged by editorialists and it provoked Capitol Square protests by women's rights and other organizations that resulted in 30 arrests in March.