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Campaign Journal: Coattail Effect Making Impact In Virginia

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Dennis J. Seese is an OffTheBus grassroots correspondent. Each week he contributes a campaign journal documenting his life out on the trail.

Monday, October 6

The deadline for voter registration here in Virginia was Monday, October 6th so my colleagues and I spent a large portion of the day distributing registration forms, providing the registrars phone number if needed, and/or directing people the few blocks down to city hall. I work in a public library and on days like this I actually feel as if I'm making a difference, albeit a small one, but a difference nonetheless.

It is hard to get a clear, comprehensive read on the political mood and climate in the state because I live in Charlottesville, a liberal oasis tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Obama, Warner, and Perriello signs dot the landscape. Most of my co-workers and a lot of patrons I have spoken to hold liberal views even in the best of times but the dire straits we find ourselves in as a nation has drastically solidified support for Senator Obama in this community.

In some ways I can get a clearer picture of what is going on in the minds of people in my native Pennsylvania. Outside of Pittsburgh in the old, crumbling-down forgotten neighborhoods filled with bars, churches, and empty factories reliably Democratic voters are succumbing to racial fears and resentments. I hear people, trampled and mauled in the worst ways, by callous Republican implemented economic policies, who have seen their wages and pension shrink, or their jobs vanished, outright, saying appalling things like "I can't vote for an N-word." It is heart-breaking and made me fear, seriously, that Pennsylvania would fall into the McCain column. Recent polls seem to confirm that for now sentiments such as these constitute an ugly minority.

Here in Charlottesville it is easy to succumb to a false sense of security about Virginia's electoral status as I walk the downtown mall on my lunch hour past the Obama headquarters and the canvassers splayed out in every direction. One of my-coworkers has canvassed recently in Nelson County --a much more, rural area near Charlottesville--and she was overwhelmed and optimistic about the response she garnered there. Driving through there recently I was struck by the sheer number of Obama signs including a few handmade, mosaic style ones that bring a smile to my face every time I think of them.

Charlottesville is located in Virginia's 5th Congressional District, and that seat is held by Virgil Goode, who is in a very heated race with Mr. Tom Perriello. As the "C-ville" weekly noted "Goode is as unpopular in Charlottesville is he is popular in the 'Southside.'" The "Southside" refers to the southernmost regions of the 5th district which contains cities like Danville, a former hotbed of textile producing. Again I'm struck by people in these devastated de-industrialized areas who continually cling to leaders who have exacerbated or enabled the problems that have afflicted their communities, but this district voted for President Bush in 2004 by a 56-43 margin and has elected Representative Goode 6 consecutive times.

Perriello was born in Albemarle County and returned here after graduating from law school at Yale and some stints working to settle disputes in Sierra Leone, Liberia, where he helped prosecute Chuck Taylor, and Afghanistan. He has been spending the majority of his time working the "Southside," which he will need to win to gain the seat. I have been following this race closely to try and gain a larger understanding of the political dynamics of the state and where exactly Charlottesville fits within it.

My girlfriend, Alison, and I tried to the Obama "Neighbor to Neighbor" approach of speaking to your neighbors before and after the Vice Presidential debate whenever an opening came up at the gym, or outside in front of our apartment in the large complex we live in. It felt like an echo chamber, much like work, and I counted six visible Obama signs peering from windows, not counting our own of course. I saw one McCain bumper sticker on a Jeep Cherokee. Our immediate neighbor got tense and refused to say who he was supporting to both us and the energetic young, female, African American canvasser who appeared within that time as well. She said she was motivated and excited for the first time, and seemed genuinely happy that we were registered and excited ourselves.

I'm not trying to sound complacent or overconfident, but I really feel that focusing more on other events, races, and tactics at this time can and will help me gain a deeper understanding of the political currents in this state.

There are Obama events in nearby Culpepper, which I am planning to attend in the coming days and will report on.

I would like to point out that the sheer number of televisions ads the Obama campaign is running here is incredible. They are flooding the airwaves with their high-quality ads at all hours of the day and as a donor this makes me so proud. No matter what Republicans say, Senator Obama's decision to opt out of public financing was brilliant.

Friday October 10th

Senator Jim Webb visited the Charlottesville Elks Lodge #389 to officially and formally endorse Tom Perriello for United States Congress. The event started at 11:30 and I got there around 11 and began milling around to hear what people were talking about. I was greeted almost immediately by Mrs. Perriello who thanked me for coming as I signed up to volunteer and stuff envelopes. I noticed a special sign-in sheet for veterans and there were huge canvassing sign-up sheets tacked to the walls behind the table. The crowd was predominantly elderly and female at first. We were encouraged to don name tags which I did along with most everyone else. More people started to filter in, as did a reporter and cameraman for both WVIR NBC 29 and WVAW-LP ABC 16. I got a cup of coffee and was approached by a Perriello staffer named Mike Berry. He noticed my notebook and wondered if I was with the press so I told him about "OffTheBus" and he was kind of enough to speak with me for a few minutes. I asked him about a recent Survey USA poll that showed a dramatic gain for Perriello who now only trails 55-42, a gain of 20 points since the last poll, perhaps most striking is the fact that 23% of independents shifted to Perriello in that time frame. I asked Mike if he believed that this was a mirror of statewide movement toward a strong Democratic ticket that also features widely popular former Governor Mark Warner on the ballot running for the Senate, or if he believed in the "coattail effect" of Senator Obama's surging popularity. He said he definitely believed in the "coattail effect" but that they still had their work cut out for them because he could foresee people voting: McCain, Warner, and Goode. I found his answer perceptive and fascinating. These voters are examples of the elusive and coveted "ticket-splitters" I always hear people like Mike Murphy talking about on TV. Mr. Berry said that their internal numbers were strong, and trending upwards, and that 50,000 new voters had registered in the 5th district, alone!! He said that turning these voters out, in addition to an anticipated high African American turnout could be the decisive factor. Goode, himself, seems to have acknowledged a shift in momentum because, mirroring the recent tone of the McCain campaign, he put out a nasty, culturally charged ad, showing a blurry, darkened, photo of a bearded, "menacing" Perriello. The campaign was still angry about this in addition to Goode's hasty decision to pull out of a debate in Charlottesville. Mike said they had agreed to a debate in Danville later this month.

By this time the crowd had filled in more and I overheard a man named Dick, wearing a "Veterans for Obama/Biden" sticker, while speaking to another man disdainfully utter the name: Steve Schmidt, twice. I wish Mr. Schmidt was present to see the folly of his ridiculous, petty, negative campaign "strategy." On the surface this man was probably the exact type of voter they had in mind when they conceived this strategy: white, middle-aged with a military background, hailing from a traditionally "Red-State" yet here this man was uttering his name with the venom and scorn it deserved for attempting to drown out the issues with the white noise of dubious smears and personal attack politics. I also heard people talking about economic matters such as the state budget shortfall.

The program began when a Charlottesville City Council member named David Brown introduced Major General James A. Kelly, a very engaging and funny speaker, who spoke of meeting Senator Obama in 2005 when he showed him around Iraq as part of a congressional delegation. He stressed the Senator's strength on defense and Veteran affairs, something very important in this state which is home to many retired and active duty military personnel. I'd like to see the Obama campaign highlight the fact that Senator McCain's record on Veteran's issues is inexplicably poor. General Kelly called Obama "the real deal" and noted that he had testified in front of Senator McCain numerous times and that "there is a reason I'm supporting Senator Obama"!!

Finally after a short delay Senator Webb delivered his endorsement. He noted that very few Americans have the sort of "experience on the ground in places like Darfur and Afghanistan that Tom Perriello has." He said that even now as a Senator when he travels to Afghanistan it is extremely regimented and he feels that the perspective he gains is different and slightly askew. Senator Webb praised Mr. Perriello's intellect and selflessness. Another interesting thing he said was that some people in Congress were not "interested in solutions" and were more about political posturing and as an example of this he cited the exhaustive 17 months it took for him to gain passage of the GI Bill. He referred to this election as a "revival" and said in his eyes it wasn't about "the difference between right and left anymore but the difference between right and wrong".

He praised Mr. Perriello as someone dedicated to solutions and not long after that he introduced Perriello who said "he didn't know what it was in the water here in Virginia... that was producing such progressive, result oriented leaders such as Senator Webb and Governor Warner" and this is the crux of what I'm determined to understand about this state and it's emergent political dynamics and whatever these men (Webb, M.Warner, hopefully Mr. Perriello) are able to tap into, Senator Obama must be able to tap into it as well to win this state November 4th. So far the signs are promising.

Perriello spoke of the farmers in the "Southside" and how they are willing to supply methane and make deals with energy companies. He spoke of the need to correct the "Culture of Corruption" and went further labeling it a "Culture of quick-fixes" which must be replaced by a "culture of service" and this echoed what Senator Webb said in his introduction. He spoke substantively and at length both in his remarks and afterwards when he took questions. I was impressed and left inspired. I signed on to stuff envelopes and help behind the scenes, which I hope to report on next time.

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