Battlegrounds: 'It's all about northern Virginia'
By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
updated 1:50 PM EDT, Fri October 26, 2012
Editor's note: The 2012 presidential race is CNN Chief National Correspondent John King's seventh campaign. King is traveling through battleground states, where the election will be decided, to find the voters who will determine whether President Barack Obama gets a second term or if the country needs the change in direction that Mitt Romney represents.
Dumfries, Virginia (CNN) -- Retiree Robert Stevens says he often turns off the television when the attack ads appear, and he hangs up the phone when it's a presidential campaign calling.
"I want to make my own independent decision," Stevens said in a lunchtime conversation this week at Harold and Cathy's Dumfries Cafe. "I don't want anybody shoving stuff down my throat."
Four years ago, Stevens recalls being "fed up with Bush" and intrigued by the idea of being part of history.
"I voted for Mr. Obama," he said. "It was something different for the country. Something that hadn't happened before -- a black president. I got caught up in that a little bit. But I think he is a disappointment. I don't see jobs coming back. The housing market is coming back a little bit. But unemployment is still way above where it should -- where he predicted it would be."
Yet this self-described independent isn't sold on Mitt Romney, either.
"Absolutely not. At this point I don't know who I am going to vote for."
Why do you identify as an independent?
His choice could go a long way in deciding who wins Virginia and the White House.
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Then-Sen. Obama in 2008 ended a streak of 10 consecutive Republican presidential wins in Virginia, and he did it by winning big in the northern Virginia suburbs within an hour or so drive from the nation's capital.
In NOVA -- the local shorthand for northern Virginia -- the president had a 234,000-vote margin over GOP nominee John McCain. In the rest of the state, the two split the vote evenly.
"It's all about Northern Virginia," said Virginia-based GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "So many people have moved into Northern Virginia, particularly from the Northeast -- Democratic areas -- that they've turned a solid red state into a purple state."
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Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly is one of those transplants; he moved to the area from Boston years ago while working as a staffer on Capitol Hill. Now, his district sits in the suburbs that have the potential to ruin Mitt Romney's night even before the polls close in the Midwest and West.
"A lot of people are focused on Ohio, but I really think it is just as conceivable that, frankly, the epicenter of this outcome is going to be right here in Virginia," Connolly said in an interview at an Obama campaign office in the heart of Prince William County. "These 13 electoral votes are pretty critical."
It's a tossup heading into the final days.
Ayres likes the trend line.
"If you look at the dozen polls in Virginia taken before the first presidential debate on October 3, Obama was ahead in all 12," Ayres said in an interview at his office in Alexandria. "If you look at the eight polls taken after the first presidential debate, Romney was ahead in six of the eight.
"Clearly the momentum is going in Romney's direction. Is it enough to win? We'll find out."
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Top Obama advisers are more worried than they were just weeks ago, and some privately say it does look more likely that Romney will eke out a Virginia win.
But Connolly is betting against it. He said the Republicans' effort to sound a more moderate tone of late is smart strategy, but he predicts it won't work.
"I think there is a trust factor with that," Connolly said. "My constituents remember the Republican primaries. They don't suffer from amnesia. I think that's a tough sell for Mitt Romney."
Spend an hour at Harold and Cathy's and it's obvious the president retains deep suburban support. But there also is evidence of doubts that give Romney the opening to at least cut into the president's margins here, something he must do to have any chance of winning statewide.
Mona Phillips is a registered Democrat. But she is voting Republican for president. Now that's not a lost vote for Obama -- she voted GOP in 2008, too.
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Still, not bringing her back into the Democratic fold could ultimately hurt.
"Mr. Obama promised so many things that I didn't believe he could do it, and he has proven he couldn't do it," Phillips said. "I'm going to vote for Romney. I have confidence in him. He has proven that he knows business and he makes it work."
Like Stevens, Phillips is no fan of the attack ads.
But she said living in the pivotal area of a swing state makes it impossible to escape the campaign.
"Two or three times a week we will get a phone call," she said with a roll of the eyes. "I also got two ads yesterday out of the mailbox."
Stevens said you can escape it "if you turn off the TV. I see enough of it on the news every night. I just want to be able to sit back and clear my head and read."
By reading, he means news articles and other research he gathers on the candidates.
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He may be doing his best to ignore it, but both campaigns are working the state feverishly in the final days -- knowing their get-out-the-vote effort is likely to determine who wins this hotly contested battleground.
Both claim the ground war edge.
The Obama campaign's case:
• More than 60 field offices across Virginia.
• Grass-roots organizing dating back to early 2009.
• A 19% increase in the number of Latinos registered to vote since 2008, and a 7% increase of African-American registration.
• Just shy of 60% of those registering to vote in the last two months are younger than 30.
The GOP's counterargument:
• More than 1 million door knocks.
• 5 million voter contacts.
• Improved absentee and early voting numbers from 2008.
Stevens will cast his ballot the old fashioned way: in person on Election Day.
"It's the economy -- jobs," he said of the overriding issue. "I think the upper-income people should pay a little more. That's where I flip on the Obama side on this thing. By the same token, I see the big picture. I just think we need a change."
If he had to vote today?
"I'm pretty much undecided. It's kind of scary. I thought I would have been there by now. But I will be by Election Day."