NORFOLK, Virginia (CNN) – The lipstick flap dominated national coverage of Barack Obama’s trip to Virginia, a state trending blue but so far out of reach for Democratic presidential hopefuls. It is no secret the Obama campaign is working this state hard and hoping for an upset this fall.
Obama visited Norfolk Tuesday, an area dominated by the military, to talk education reform. Monday he made his second visit since the primary season ended to southwestern Virginia, a rural slice of the state that went heavily for President Bush in 2004 and where Obama needs to improve his margins to win the state.
“Senator Obama is a friend of coal, a friend of this region,” said Congressman Rick Boucher, a southwest Democrat whose district includes the town of Lebanon where Obama spoke.
The discussion of coal is key in reaching out to this group of voters, many of whom work or did work in the industry. From the talk of coal to the Willie Nelson tunes used to warm up the crowd, it is obvious camp Obama is trying to make up for Democrats’ past mistakes when it comes to relating to more conservative voters in more traditional regions. Obama’s comment to a San Francisco fundraiser earlier this year about voters in these areas “clinging” to guns and religion has resurfaced recently as a Republican talking point.
“There are a lot of folks who come up to me and they say, ‘you know Barack, I like your economic plan and I’m tired of George W Bush, or I got my NRA mailing and I’m worried you’re going to take my gun away,’” Obama told the packed gym at Lebanon High School. “I just want to be absolutely clear … I believe in people’s lawful right to bear arms. I will not take your shotgun way. I will not take your rifle away. I won’t take your handgun away.”
“He has a darn good chance of winning Virginia,” said Lebanon resident Ray Fogg. Fogg said his town, which sits in Russell County, was “more for Hillary” in the primaries but with consistent concerns about the economy and health care, this long-time union member said “the people in this area are going to vote D.”
Others are not so sure. Helen Fields, an undecided Democrat came away from Monday’s town hall “impressed” Obama had discussed health care and the economy at length, two issues very important to her. But she said the addition of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the McCain ticket has prompted her to give the Republicans a “second look” this fall.
“I will probably follow it till the last minute,” Fields said.
So far the Obama campaign has 41 offices around Virginia – offices that state Communications Director Kevin Griffis said act as “platforms” for volunteers to organize and engage in the neighbor-to-neighbor voter contact the campaign feels has served them well in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Griffis said people in southwestern Virginia do not know Obama as well and only personal contact can overcome hurdles, like questions about the candidate’s faith, in this region.
“It makes a big difference when you go down there and spend a little time,” Griffis said.