Did Road to Unity Begin in Virginia?

A mixed-raced audience of amped-up supporters braved Northern Virginia's rush hour traffic and the oppressive humidity of the summer's first major heat wave yesterday to catch a glimpse of their newly-crowned Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama.

With a punctuality that would impress President Bush, the event at Bristol's Nissan Pavilion started promptly at 6 p.m. This seemed surprising at the time, but may have been because he was eager to be on time to his later personal meeting with Sen. Hillary Clinton in Washington.

As Democrats await news from that meeting to leak out, Obama finds himself in a weird electoral limbo in which he has wrapped up the nomination but still awaits the formal end this Saturday of the Clinton campaign, and an eventual endorsement and unity moment with her at some event in the near future. Meanwhile, speculation continues unabated about a possible "dream team" pairing the two senators on the presidential ticket.

In Virginia, Obama didn't talk about vice presidential scenarios and only mentioned Clinton briefly to laud her and candidacy. Instead, he offered historical analogies.

"This crowd reflects the work that was done 40 years ago to protect this Union," Obama told a less-than-capacity crowd, capping a mini-dissertation in which he juxtaposed the angst-ridden politics of the Vietnam era with the struggles Americans are facing today. "And now, 40 years later, that same sense of urgency is demanded."

Flanked by Virginia's Democratic governor, Tim Kaine, and the state's newly-elected Democratic U.S. senator, Jim Webb, Obama delivered a stump speech in which he mixed more recent policy talk with some of the powerful lines and cadences he employed in January in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. The Illinois senator lamented that "our sense that the future of our children and grandchildren will be better than our own is slipping away." In such times, he said, "we cannot afford to wait."

Webb's introductory remarks touched on similar themes. Noting that the day marked the 40th anniversary of both his swearing-in as a U.S. Marine and the assassination in Los Angeles of Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, the state's junior senator drew historical parallels between that period and now.

"The last eight years have been very hard on America, including on our view of ourselves," said Webb. "A new set of doubts exist, many of them even more fundamental than our earlier concerns about war and civil rights."

"If you're in a fight -- and we're gonna be in a fight -- you want Jim Webb having your back," said Obama. He also thanked Kaine -- who in February 2007 emerged as the first Democrat elected statewide outside of Illinois to publicly endorse Obama -- for the political guts he showed "in the seat of the Confederacy" when other Democrats a year ago instead chose to play "wait-and-see."

Historical references and backslapping plaudits aside, there was plenty of talk about recent electoral trends and the prospects in the Old Dominion this November.

"This was a reliably red state," said Kaine, reviewing the Democrats' electoral struggles during the past three decades in the commonwealth. "Presidential candidates didn't come here: Republicans didn't need to and Democrats said, Why bother? But we've been making some changes in Virginia -- we've changed Virginia from red to blue." Kaine cited his campaign and that of fellow Democrat Mark Warner's consecutive gubernatorial wins in 2001 and 2005, plus Webb's 2006 upset of "macaca"-plagued Republican incumbent George Allen.

Noting that no Democratic presidential nominee has carried the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Kaine asked, "I have one question for you tonight: Are we ready politically to make that next change?"

Although the margin by which Kerry lost to Bush in Florida was closer than in Virginia, there are reasons to believe that Virginia might be more competitive this cycle. While the results from Florida's unsanctioned primary in January are difficult to interpret with precision, there's still no way Obama's would have been able to match in Florida his impressive, 29-point victory over Clinton in Virginia's March 4 contest, no matter when the Sunshine State voted.

Then there is the potential help Obama will get downballot this year from Kaine, Webb and Senate candidate Mark Warner, the former governor, who hopes to join Webb in converting Virginia in just two cycles from a state with two Republican senators to one with Democrats. All three men are popular figures in this state.

Though the South will be tough terrain for Obama this November, coupling his natural advantages in rapidly-changing Virginia with Republican nominee John McCain's appeal among Florida military families and seniors, Virginia rightly deserves to be designated as the southern state Obama is mostly likely to win, if he wins any.

"It's quite an honor that the next president of the United States has chosen to join us here at the start of this campaign," proclaimed a visibly confident Webb, causing the crowd to erupt.

But, before he can turn his full attention toward Virginia or any other state on his general election targeting map, Obama must deal with Hillary Clinton. In Bristol, the presence of his vanquished primary opponent was palpable. Kaine, Webb and Obama all congratulated and praised Clinton for her historic campaign, but as each did the audience responded with light applause that barely drowned out a small smattering of boos.

Barack Obama may have ducked the press for one night. But he's not going to be able to duck the issue of how to deal with Hillary Clinton and her 18 million voters.

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