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Gary Younge
Obama’s Virginia Territory

At the end of the day even the most sophisticated grassroots electoral campaign relies on people. People like Meghan Schertz, a 29-year-old Obama volunteer, who’s given up her Sunday afternoon to canvass the Washington Heights area here.

But it also depends on the people whom volunteers like Meghan meet. The names on her list are the product of data based on magazines they subscribe to, cars they drive, shops they visit and past votes they’ve cast. Each has a bar code, and Meghan has to place them on a five-point scale ranging from strongly for Obama to strongly for McCain.

It sounds like genius. But in practice it looks like little more than educated guesswork. The house with two pickup trucks bearing Harley Davidson stickers is leaning Obama. Before she can open her mouth at another house, the man glances at her Obama badge and says, "I don’t want to talk about it" and shuts the door. Next comes the woman who refuses to open the door, preferring to shout from the window, "I’m for Obama, so go on now." The man with the Nader yard sign threatens to shoot her unless she gets off his property. "So you’re an independent then?" asks the unflappable Meghan.

It’s the day before Virginia’s voter registration deadline, and Schertz, who has never been involved in an election campaign before, struggles to find a street on a poorly drawn map. The sun sets before she can finish all the names on her list. Where people are concerned, you can only plan for so many eventualities.

Look carefully at an electoral map of southwest Virginia, and you’ll spot Roanoke, a tiny blue island bobbing around in a sea of red. Four hours by car from the nearest Republican county to its west and two to the south and east, it nestles in a valley between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachians. It’s a town of just under 100,000 in a swing state–a town Barack Obama must win big if he is to be the first Democrat to take Virginia in more than forty years, in an area John McCain must win big if he is to have any chance of taking the presidency.

So far, things are going Obama’s way. In this region he has outspent McCain on TV advertising–by two to one–and outmaneuvered him many times over. Obama has been to this region three times. In the past three weeks Bill Clinton, Evan Bayh and Terry McAuliffe have dropped in too. Neither Sarah Palin nor McCain nor any surrogates have yet visited. Obama’s aim is not to win the region–although he should take the town–but to limit McCain’s margin of victory substantially here so that a big win in Virginia’s northern suburbs and a good showing in Hampton Roads can take him over the top. A local politician says Obama would need 40 percent of the southwest vote if he’s going to take the state. A recent Mason-Dixon poll gave him 39 percent. Statewide, Obama is leading by around 6 percent.

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