By Walter Alarkon - 08/01/09 01:57 PM EDT
Obama, for more than two years, has been a frequent presence in the Old Dominion. During the presidential campaign, Obama visited Virginia 30 times, more than any other state. It was a strategy that paid off in the first Democratic presidential victory there since Lyndon Baines Johnson's in 1964.
On Wednesday, Obama went to the town of Bristol, in the rural, southwestern corner of the state, to push back against Republican critics of his healthcare plan. In a town-hall meeting filled with his supporters, the president took on the main Republican critique of his presidency: that he has overseen a huge increase in government spending in just six months in office.
The president also catered to the local crowd, noting that Bristol was the first place he visited during his general election campaign.
"In my mind at least, this is where change began, and that's why I've come back," he said.
The latest visits come as Republicans try to chip away at his approval rating. The GOP, trying to paint Obama as too liberal for a historically conservative state, has cited spending they claim will contribute to a record $1.8 trillion deficit this year. They also point out other Obama priorities, including a cap-and-trade emissions regulatory system and healthcare reform, that could increase the size of government.
"What we have witnessed in the first few months of his term is this desire to get more government into our lives," said Jerry Kilgore, a former Virginia attorney general.
Two recent polls have shown that the attacks may be working. A Public Policy Polling survey and a SurveyUSA poll, both conducted earlier this month, showed that less than half of the people in the state approved of the job Obama was doing as president. When he started in January, his rating in Virginia had been above 60 percent.
But top Republicans are also wary of taking the president head on. The GOP candidate for governor, Attorney General Bob McDonnell, has praised Obama personally and has taken pains not to mention his name even while he attacks the spending in the stimulus and a public healthcare plan. McDonnell attributed those policies to "national Democrats" and has avoided linking them directly to the president.
"He's praised Obama for [support for] charter schools and performance-based pay and about what he's doing right for education," said McDonnell press secretary Crystal Cameron. "He'll certainly give [the president] credit where credit is due."
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said he didn't believe polls showing Obama's popularity slipping in a state that has gone from red to purple. He said Obama is one of a line of Democrats, including Sen. Mark Warner, Sen. Jim Webb, Gov. Tim Kaine and himself, who have won races in Virginia that used to be won by Republicans.
"You go after [Obama] personally at your own peril, and Bob McDonnell is smart enough to understand that," Connolly said.
Much of the shift toward Democrats is due to demographics. The fastest growing part of the state is Northern Virginia, which is less culturally conservative than other regions and helped put Obama and other Democratic candidates over the top in recent years, said Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia.
"The state's been nationalized because of tremendous growth in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads," Sabato said.
When Obama appears with Deeds next week to push his candidacy, they'll appear in McLean in the northern part of the state. Obama has made other stops in the region as president, having burgers with Vice President Biden in Arlington and pushing his healthcare plan at another town-hall meeting in Annandale in late June.
It's hard to imagine Obama winning a second term in 2012 without winning Virginia again, Sabato said.
"Think about the states he carried that were new [for Democrats]," Sabato said. "Indiana could easily flip back, North Carolina was excruciatingly close, Florida always wobbles. Virginia is maybe the new keystone state for him."