FREDERICKSBURG, Va. -- Less than 24 hours after the first presidential debate, Barack Obama was already campaigning in the battleground state of Virginia and telling the crowd, "We just might turn Virginia blue this time!"
It is evidence of Obama's ambition and high hopes for Virginia. He believes he can win here, even though Virginians voted Republican in 10 straight presidential elections. But this is a purple state now, and Obama is just one percentage point away from the threshold of northern Virginia voters considered necessary to win.
On Saturday people stood in line for three hours to participate in the Obama-Biden rally at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. "I didn't wait in a line this long to see the movie E.T.!" said one Obama supporter. Over 26,000 people of all ages came together in this quintessential college town, the site of an 1862 Civil War battle. Roughly 12,000 lucky people were admitted to the campus green, where trees were just beginning their autumnal color change. Another 14,000 supporters stood outside the barriers, most within earshot of the PA system.
A gray-haired gentleman walking slowly to the back of the mile-long line stopped to implore a group of young people to vote. "It's your future," he said. "Your vote has never been more important." All along the sidewalk students sold tee-shirts and other souvenirs. One student cried, "We're accepting bailout plans here!"
Giselle Rosario, an undecided voter from Puerto Rico who now lives in Dumfries, Va., is waiting to hear what Obama has to say about the Wall Street bailout. "I'm a homeowner with an adjustable rate mortgage. I want to know if he still plans to help me," she told OffTheBus.
Michael Cobb, an independent voter who lives in Fredericksburg, is waiting to hear if Obama has changed his mind about funding affordable health care. "I own a small business and spend over $1500 a month on health insurance for my family, and we're all healthy. Imagine what it would cost if we weren't," Cobb told OffTheBus. "I'd like to see Hillary Clinton put in charge of health care reform. She could get it done."
What did Cobb think of Obama's performance during the debate? "He didn't need to say "That's right, John" so many times. Obama should be tougher on McCain during the next debate."
Campus officials stopped letting people into the campus green, called Ball Circle, around 5 pm, because no more standing room was available. Soon after it began to rain steadily. Virginia State Senator Ed Houck (D) took the stage around 6 pm and told the soaked crowd, "Virginia is a key commonwealth. We need your help. There's a tremendous amount of work to be done." Then Houck ran for cover.
The crowd wasn't so lucky, and no one appeared on stage for the next hour. Pouring from the sound system was a musical playlist that included Beautiful Day by U2, Celebrate Good Times by Kool & The Gang, and Ain't No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
Ankle-deep in mud and now wearing an orange trash bag as a rain poncho, OffTheBus spoke with several people in the crowd about the huge military vote in Virginia, which historically swings in favor of the Administration. The overwhelming support for a new-and-improved G.I. bill sponsored by Virginia Senator Jim Webb (D) -- which provides post-9/11 veterans with comprehensive educational benefits -- will reflect well on Obama. Also, Michelle Obama has been speaking to military wives in this state.
"Military men and women appreciate Obama's leadership in the wake of the Walter Reed crisis, too," campaign spokesman Clark Stevens told OffTheBus. Military retiree Sehree Mercer, an independent voter from Stafford, Va., added, "The military is broke! We need a CEO who will restructure it -- and put it back on its feet."
Obama strikes these people as someone who is "real" and who will do more than John McCain to keep military families together by improving the economy, creating more civilian jobs, and making college tuition more affordable.
Just after 7 pm, Barack Obama and Joe Biden took the stage just minutes ahead of a second cloudburst. Biden asked the cheering crowd, "Where was John McCain a week ago? A month ago? A year ago? Tethered to George W. Bush's economic policy. Now McCain wants to stand up and say, "Me, too, I want change!" Well, that's what we Catholics call an epiphany."
Barack Obama reminded the crowd that McCain didn't once mention the middle class or the working class during the debate. "In 90 minutes, John McCain had a lot to say about me, but had nothing to say about you." As the drizzle turned into a steady rain, Obama removed his jacket and said, "I'd offer to pay for everyone's dry cleaning, but we need the money for Virginia."
The candidate also drew cheers when he said:
"If we don't act soon to clean up Wall Street, your life savings will be at risk."
"I will make sure Wall Street gives every penny back once this crisis is over."
"I will keep my promise of affordable health care for all Americans."
"I will make sure every young person in America can afford to go to college."
After Obama's speech, OffTheBus spoke with a young girl practically bubbling over. "When he left the stage, I leaned over the grandstand railing and called to him -- Senator Obama, Senator Obama, would you please shake my hand?" said Angela Petroutsa of Fredericksburg. "He paused for a second, then walked over and shook my hand, and I just kept shaking his hand over and over because it was so surreal."
Up close, the presidential candidate looked just a little bit tired on Saturday. Still he was able to energize the crowd. Malinda Langford, a campaign canvasser from Alexandria, Va., told OffTheBus she can feel that same energy whenever Virginia volunteers get together. "Last week 300 volunteers knocked on 10,000 doors! Even volunteers from Maryland drove down to help us. It was awesome."
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