BLACKSBURG, November 5 – Buoyed by support from young voters, Barack Obama could become the first Democrat to capture traditionally Republican Virginia in more than four decades Tuesday, helping him clinch the White House.
With more than five million Virginians registered to vote statewide, including 500,000 mostly young new voters, election officials reported heavy turnout as polling stations opened earlier than much of the rest of the country.
Callers to a national voter hotline reported experiencing long lines and some voting machine problems.
On Monday, a federal judge had refused to order any last-minute changes to Virginia’s voting rules following claims by a civil rights group the state was not prepared to handle the massive voter turnout.
Despite the technical problems, Obama supporters were optimistic.
"This is the right time for the pendulum to swing in favor of the Democrats and Virginia will set the stage for an Obama victory," said Richard McClevey, an ex-State Department employee campaigning in the southwestern town of Blacksburg for the 47-year-old Illinois senator.
At least four independent polls over the last week showed Obama has an edge by up to nine percentage points over Republican Senator John McCain in traditionally conservative Virginia, which last voted for a Democrat for president in 1964.
Public Policy Polling, a vote monitoring forum, said Obama had led in all seven polls it conducted in Virginia this year.
If Obama wins the state, which has 13 electoral votes, it will be near impossible for McCain to secure the 270 electoral votes he needs to bag a victory.
"Virginia has really become a firewall for Barack Obama," said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. "There aren’t a lot of scenarios where he wins Virginia and doesn’t take the presidency along with him."
Obama began and closed his nearly two-year presidential campaign in vote-rich northern Virginia, the prosperous, diverse and increasingly less-reliably Republican southern side of the metropolitan Washington, DC area.
"Virginia, your choice can change the world tomorrow," a visibly tired Obama declared late Monday to a roaring crowd in Manassas, near the site of two major land battles of the American Civil War over slavery. Obama would be the first African-American US president.
His new found strength in Virginia is attributed to a sharp rise in new voters, mostly university students wanting to be more involved in political and economic issues compared with past elections.
About 40 percent of the new voters registered this year are under 25, according to the Virginia State Board of Elections as surveys showed nearly two-to-one support for Obama over McCain among voters nationwide aged 18 to 29.
One of the largest increases of registered voters was recorded here in Blacksburg, a Democratic bastion surrounded by Republican strongholds in the state’s southwest.
Students from the town’s VirginiaTech University, who made up the bulk of the increase, were at the forefront of the Republican and Democratic teams wooing voters to the polling stations on Tuesday.
"Definitely, young voters are a lot more mobilized in this election than other elections," said Charlotte Friar, a 22-year-old senior political science VTech student, who voted for Obama by absentee ballot ahead of Tuesday’s election.
But another V-Tech student Kevin Ferrell said his vote would go for McCain, a 72-year-old former prisoner of war in Vietnam.
"I am not necessarily saying McCain is the perfect person for the job, but Obama, he won’t wear the American flagpin and that’s the main issue I have with him," said the V-Tech junior marketing student as he was hurrying for his next class.
Obama’s patriotism was questioned by some when he opted not to don a Stars-and-Stripes lapel flagpin at some points in the election primary campaign. It is a US presidential tradition he now seems largely to have adopted.
Virginia together with Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania are key battleground states.
In 2004, incumbent President George W. Bush won Virginia easily — 54 percent to 45 percent — over his Democratic rival John Kerry.
Obama’s running mate Joseph Biden made a last minute visit Tuesday at a school voting station in Virginia’s state capitol Richmond.
"I always feel at the end of the race that it ain’t over til it’s over, so we’re waiting ’til the polls close. Right guys?," he told reporters.