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Proof of Obama's Red State Appeal?

02/26/2008 11:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Beltway's borders are turning blue.

Both Virginia and Maryland booted Republican incumbents in the last elections, tapping new school Democrats Jim Webb for senator in the Old Dominion and Martin O'Malley as governor of the Old Line state.

This month, Maryland primary voters deemed Rep. Al Wynn insufficiently Democratic, rejecting the periwinkle incumbent for the bright blue candidacy of Donna Edwards, a Netroots-powered progressive. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner leads the current race for the Senate seat of retiring Republican incumbent John Warner -- a victory would put the Commonwealth's top three jobs in Democratic hands. And if Obama is the nominee, Virginia could even be in play in the presidential race.

Obama not only clobbered Clinton by 29 points in the Feb. 12 primary. He drew support from 623,000 Virginians -- that's 181,000 more votes than Republican candidates John McCain and Mike Huckabee combined.

Virginia's other Democratic star, Sen. Webb, says the Commonwealth's presidential race is finally "open" to both parties, and Democrats can win on the war, "economic fairness and social justice." Webb, who served in the Reagan administration, believes this is the "time for the Reagan Democrats to come home."

He may be right. In the Democratic primary, half the voters self-identified as moderate or conservative. Obama won moderates by over 30 points and conservatives by a whopping 49 points Meanwhile, the hypothetical polling really has politicos buzzing.

General election surveys are still largely premature, of course. All the candidates will look different under this summer's "klieg lights," as the president says. Right now, however, it looks like Obama's strength in the Virginia primary would help in November. A Feb. 17 Survey USA poll shows Obama beating McCain by six points in Virginia. Clinton would "lose" by three, but within the 4.2 point margin of error. At a minimum, it suggests that McCain malaise puts Virginia in play. Put aside hypothetical polls, and the malaise was also visible in this year's Republican turnout.

And that brings us to the data set that the Virginia G.O.P. does not want you to see.

John McCain drew more votes in the 2000 primary, while losing the Commonwealth to Bush, than he did in his victory this month.

McCain's 2000 avatar, that reformist maverick battling Rovian spin and religious extremists, drew 291,000 votes. Yet in his new, discomfited role -- a 100-year warrior surrounded by Bush hacks, Falwell's ghost and a swirl of questionable ethics -- McCain drew only 244,000 votes. Apparently Virginians liked McCain better when he was losing. Or when he was himself.

Finally, Virginia's subdued Republican primary suggests a political opportunity that could both tip the race and actually improve U.S. policy.

One out of four Virginia Republicans said they disapprove of the war in Iraq -- a striking ratio for a low-turnout primary of party faithful. Across the nation, one out of three Republicans oppose Bush's handling of the war, according to a December CBS poll. Democrats can win over some of these anti-war voters by sharply opposing the Bush-McCain plan for the endless occupation of Iraq. (Seven percent of Democratic primary voters were Republicans.) While Warner sets a bipartisan tone on domestic issues, the Democratic nominee must reinforce Webb's blunt opposition to Republican failures in Iraq - the same imperative that led Virginians to elect him last cycle.

If a bipartisan, anti-war plank serves Democrats well in Virginia, it can help them excel anywhere.

Obama is already running on that message, of course, while Clinton struggles with it. In last week's debate, both of her "big" moments awkwardly wrestled with Iraq and McCain.

Clinton answered a question about whether McCain was superior on "fiscal responsibility" by emphasizing that he "supported... the Iraq war," an expensive investment. But so did she. Then in her closing, Clinton talked about accompanying the Arizona senator to see "wounded warriors" at a medical center. But McCain discusses the wounded when defending the case for the Iraq war, not its cost. In last month's debate, of course, Clinton maintained there still was a "credible case" to launch the war.

If voters believe that, in Virginia or across the country, they're likely to go all in and back the candidate who cosponsored the war resolution -- not the one who was for it but claims it didn't actually authorize a war. Given a clear choice, however, voters might go for the antiwar candidate. Just ask Jim Webb.

New York Readers: You are invited to this free panel event next week, where we'll discuss Donna Edwards' victory, netroots politics, and the 2008 race:

How the Netroots are Changing Progressive Politics
March 5, 6:30pm, CUNY Graduate Center, Proshansky Auditorium, 365 Fifth Avenue

A panel convening progressive leaders and writers for a lively discussion of how the netroots are changing progressive politics. Participants will include Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher and editor of The Nation; Zephyr Teachout, assistant professor of law, Duke University, and an architect of Howard Dean's Internet strategy; Matt Stoller, a founding blogger of OpenLeft and President of BlogPAC; Roberto Lovato, a writer at New America Media and blogger for Of América; and Ari Melber, a correspondent for The Nation and a contributing editor at Personal Democracy Forum. The event is free of charge. Co-sponsored by MoveOn.org.