Bull Run for the Bully Pulpit: Battle for White House Begins Next Door

Most outsiders coming to Virginia find the byways that wind through the verdant hills and suburban sprawl an annoying maze. Whereas in Los Angeles, for example, the streets run on a grid, the streets of northern Virginia twist and double back, changing names a time or two along the way -- explaining how I accidentally ended up at the Maryland border my first night in DC while trying to find a hotel in Virginia.

It's the perfect metaphor for the twisting, turning, even treacherous route that both President Obama and Mitt Romney must take through the commonwealth on the road to the White House.

The wide, green medians of said streets will be littered with campaign signs well before the leaves begin to turn as the Republicans and the Democrats battle it out for the lucky 13 electoral votes here. Strategists are increasingly focused on this connector between the conservatism of the south and the liberalism of the East Coast as one state that Romney must take out of Obama's 2008 "win" column to keep the president from a second term.

The left is still stinging from losing the governor's mansion in 2009 when former attorney general Bob McDonnell defeated state senator Creigh Deeds by 17 points. In 2011 elections, Democrats took a beating in the state legislature. But questions linger about whether that momentum can turn around Obama's performance in 2008.

Will the extremely popular McDonnell be snatched away to run for the vice presidency in Romney's hopes that it could secure the state? The Virginia governor, who is already assisting the campaign, would likely help Romney get conservatives to the polls in the general election. It's a threat serious enough that state Dems have taken to some kneecap-whacking over the budget to keep McDonnell at home.

First, both sides will be trying their hardest to get as many new registered voters as possible and ensure that they show up to the polls -- one cog in Obama's 2008 victory here.

In 2010 midterms, Virginia ranked 39th in the nation in voter turnout, with 38.6 percent of the estimated citizen voting age population casting ballots, according to the commonwealth, and 44.01 percent of registered voters showing up.

The lowest turnout rate was in the Shenandoah Valley region in the more rural western part of the state, where just 74 percent of those voting age are registered. The Eastern region, however, has 84.1 percent voter registration.

It's this concentration of Washington commuters that Romney can't cede to Obama if he wants to win the state. The suburbs are filled with DC workers who represent both sides of the aisle from Hill staff to lobbyists to federal employees. It's open season in terms of wooing voters, but it's also a population that hasn't been smarting as much from the recession.

In 2008, 91.5 percent of Virginians were registered to vote out of the eligible population, a 10.5 percent jump from midterms two years before, for more than 5 million statewide. It was the first time the commonwealth had gone blue in a presidential election since picking Lyndon B. Johnson in his rout over Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Not only did Obama beat Sen. JohnMcCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 by 6 percentage points, former governor Mark Warner (D) defeated another former governor, Jim Gilmore (R), with 65 percent of the vote to win his Senate seat. McCain's campaign assumed the state was Republican for the taking, thus didn't sink a lot of resources into winning Virginia.

This time around, it won't just be the presidential race that will be watched in Virginia but the race to replace retiring senior Sen. Jim Webb (D) between former Sen. George Allen (R) (defeated by Webb in 2006) and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine (governor before McDonnell).

The GOP primaries weren't exactly an indicator of how Romney will fare, considering that only two candidates were on the ballot. Romney won 59.5 percent, just 158,053 votes, while Ron Paul got 107,480 votes for 40.5 percent. Virginians don't declare a party affiliation when they register and primaries are open.

Virginia's population jumped 13 percent from the 2000 Census to the 2010 count. The commonwealth is just over 50 percent women (and they own more than 30 percent of businesses here), and more than two-thirds white. Blacks make up nearly 20 percent of the population, and Latinos comprise nearly 8 percent. More than 11 percent live below the poverty level, one of the lowest rates in the nation.

A University of Virginia report released last week showed that the black population has been gradually increasing, with consistent concentrations in the eastern and southern parts of the state. Obama won 92 percent of this voting bloc in 2008 with high turnout.

Obama also won 60 percent of all ballots cast in Virginia by voters under 30 years old. Virginia is one of the youngest states in the union, with just 12.2 percent of the population over 65 years of age.

Unlike its swing-state cousin Ohio, labor unions are not a significant political influence in Virginia with fewer than 200,000 union members.