RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - If Virginia is a battleground in the presidential race, there are a handful of strategic battlefields that will decide whether the Old Dominion favors Republican Mitt Romney or Democratic President Barack Obama this fall.
Suburbia - the enclaves of uncommitted independents, of affluent and educated professionals who deliberate until the election's closing days - is where the outcome hangs in the balance in a state both candidates feel they must win.
Interviews with political professionals and an Associated Press analysis of election results for the past seven years indicates that the partisan battles will generally be fiercest in three Washington, D.C., suburbs, two Richmond suburbs and Hampton Roads.
All are tucked conveniently into media markets that are already brimming with televised political ads and sure to get more profuse. The Virginia "air war," as politicos call the broadcast ad blitz, will obliterate records for campaign spending, said Steve Jarding of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Counting the presidential, U.S. Senate and several House races, spending could easily top $60 million in Virginia, and possibly $100 million if the races are close to the very end, said Jarding, who guided the successful gubernatorial bid of Mark R. Warner in 2001 and Sen. Jim Webb's victory in 2006.
"Hampton Roads and the 2nd (Congressional) District - Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Norfolk - they're going to be the tip of the spear," said Christopher J. LaCivita, a national Republican strategist who lives in Powhatan and started his career in Virginia races.
In 2008, Obama pulled off a convincing and improbable coup in Hampton Roads on his way to becoming the first Democrat to carry Virginia since 1964. In the area that's home to the world's largest U.S. Navy base and huge populations of active-duty and retired military, Obama narrowly outpolled Republican John McCain, a Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
Democrats had flexed their muscle in the region before. Tim Kaine stunned Republican Jerry W. Kilgore and the GOP in the 2005 governor's race when he won Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, both long considered Republican strongholds. A year later, decorated Vietnam veteran Jim Webb lost Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, but he prevented GOP incumbent Sen. George Allen from running up the customary large margins Republicans had come to expect. That helped Webb edge Allen by about 9,000 votes out of 2.3 million cast statewide.
While the presidential race gets top billing, Hampton Roads is also critical to the Virginia U.S. Senate race between Allen and Kaine to fill the seat Webb is leaving after one term. In addition, the campaign of Democrat Paul Hirschbiel is prepared to compete financially with first-term Republican Scott Rigell in the 2nd District.
Richmond and its sleepy suburbs, just a few years ago among the nation's most forgotten outposts in presidential races, is already on the front lines. In formally kicking off his campaign earlier this month, Obama chose universities in the capitals of two must-win states - perennial swing state Ohio and Virginia.
It was Kaine who first pried Henrico County from the Republicans in his 2005 race, winning it by half a percentage point. While the Henrico victory was shocking, it was perhaps more significant that Kilgore was unable to amass a large margin over Kaine in Republican Chesterfield.
"I think Tim Kaine would tell you that he knew about 7:30 on election night that he was going to be elected governor when he saw that Jerry Kilgore carried Chesterfield by less than 11,000 votes," Holsworth said.
It was equally indicative three years later when Obama came within about 12,000 votes of McCain in Chesterfield, the same county where George W. Bush had trounced Democrats in 2000 and 2004 by more than 30,000 votes. Across the James River in Henrico, Obama defeated McCain by nearly 19,000 votes, a staggering loss for Republicans in the home county of Rep. Eric Cantor, now the Republican majority leader in the U.S. House.
Republicans never counted Fairfax County - perched in Washington's back yard and, with more than 1 million people, Virginia's largest locality - as reliably friendly. With a large number of employees of the federal government or federal contractors, it has a tendency to lean Democratic. But when it does swing Republican, it's generally a good day for the GOP because a good showing in Fairfax is necessary to offset the large margins Democrats pile up in Alexandria and Arlington.
So it was no great surprise to the GOP that it lost Fairfax County to Obama. It was much tougher for the party to swallow resounding losses in the exurbs of Prince William and Loudoun counties, which had once been wall-to-wall Republican. McCain finished 11,000 votes behind Obama in Loudoun, and 25,000 votes short in Prince William.
Kaine had won both counties in his 2005 gubernatorial bid, the first Democratic victory there in years, and Webb replicated the same feat one year later. But it stung to lose a presidential race in the localities where Bush had twice run up gaudy margins, and which Republicans had owned for decades.
But loyalties are fleeting in northern Virginia. In 2009, Louisa and Prince William returned to the GOP and brought Fairfax with it in Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's rout over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds in the gubernatorial race.