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March 6, 2012
While Republican candidates continue to slug it out for their party's White House nomination, President Obama is getting a head start on the general election.
Obama's grassroots campaign is already hard at work with volunteers hosting house parties and staffing phone banks to find and mobilize the president's supporters. The campaign has opened five offices in Virginia, and that's not counting the basement of Sue Langley's house in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Vienna, where more than a dozen volunteers assembled this past weekend.
Langley, adorned in a "Women for Obama" T-shirt, handed out clipboards full of voter registration forms, along with ballpoint pens and other provisions for a long day of signing up voters.
Teams were assigned to a local supermarket, an apartment building and a community center. Volunteer Carol Lewis, who works for a software company and has three grown children, has been doing this for a couple of hours every week.
Lewis is particularly grateful for the president's health care effort, which allowed her to keep one son on her company's insurance policy. It's a story she tells often when talking with her neighbors.
"My neighbors are very much behind President Obama," Lewis says. "And I'm actually trying to recruit them to work with me on this campaign."
Mitt Romney is heavily favored to win Virginia's primary on Super Tuesday. Republican rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich didn't even make it on the ballot.
So far, the Romney campaign hasn't invested a great deal in get-out-the-vote efforts, but Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who chairs the campaign in the state, says organizational efforts will ramp up before the more competitive race in November.
"I can assure you, Virginia's going to be a battleground state," Bolling says. "We're going to see a lot of attention on Virginia."
Bolling says that's because both Romney and Obama understand that Virginia is going to be one of about a half-dozen states that will probably decide who the next president will be.
Four years ago, Obama won Virginia by six points, the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to carry the state. He was helped by a big turnout of African-Americans, young voters and Democrats from the fast-growing suburbs of Washington, D.C.
In the years since then, however, many of those voters stayed home, and an older, whiter electorate gave Republicans full control of the Virginia statehouse. Political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia says which party wins in November depends a lot on who shows up to vote.
"There's very little Obama can do to minimize his losses in the rural parts of Virginia. He's going to lose overwhelmingly there," Sabato says. "He simply has to pump up the vote in the urban corridor, which stretches from Northern Virginia, through Richmond, into tidewater. That's already more than two-thirds of the state vote."
Volunteer activities like the one organized by Langley not only help find new voters, they also help keep Obama's existing supporters engaged with the campaign.
So far, Romney has no similar grassroots effort, and just one campaign office in Virginia to Obama's five. Still, state chairman Bolling is confident that Romney's message will prevail in November.
"Virginians understand the most important issue facing the country today is the need to get the economy growing again and create jobs, the need to get federal spending under control, [and] bring down the national debt," he says.
That message is a little dicey in Virginia, though, where one in every three dollars spent comes from the federal government and where that federal spending has kept unemployment well below the national average.
On Friday, President Obama plans to talk about the economic gains nationwide, when new monthly jobs numbers come out. He'll be speaking in Virginia.