RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Today and tomorrow, President Obama will be showing up in a place where the stakes are high - Virginia. He won that state four years ago, the first Democrat to do so since Lyndon Johnson. Democrats believe that was the beginning of a long-term shift in Virginia politics. Republicans say it was a one-off. The argument could be settled this November in the Tidewater region of southeastern Virginia. That's where the president begins this campaign trip, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The president's first scheduled stop today is at Green Run High School in Virginia Beach. Caine Basey is a recent graduate of the school. He couldn't get a ticket for the event but says he will cast his first presidential vote for Mr. Obama.
CAINE BASEY: I think he's the best choice, and not 'cause he's black either, but, you know, Obamacare and all that. I like what he supports.
HORSLEY: Basey's eating at the Amazing African Restaurant across the street from the school. It specializes in dishes from Nigeria and neighboring countries. Basey's mother Rhoda is also an Obama backer and a career sailor in the Navy.
RHODA BASEY: Not only do I serve him as the commander in chief, but I serve him as my president and I believe he deserves the opportunity to make a change, make some differences and do some good in office.
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HORSLEY: At the Better Barber Shop a few doors down, owner Damien May is giving a trim while a couple of colleagues play chess. There's a big voter registration sign in the shop's front window. May thinks a lot of his customers who are on active duty will be voting for Mr. Obama.
DAMIEN MAY: Hey, we got some military in here now. We got ex-military. Got one. We get a lot of military. They're going to support - he got Osama, so, you know, he doing what he can do.
HORSLEY: Larry Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, grew up in this area when it was heavily Republican, largely because the military presence. Like the rest of the state, though, he says the character of southeastern Virginia is changing.
LARRY SABATO: The key to a region like Hampton Roads is to understand its diversity. You have lots of minorities but also a lot of blue-collar whites. You got everything in one region.
HORSLEY: The demographics are shifting in the Democrats' direction. But Mr. Obama's hopes of winning here and in many other states may depend on his ability to turn out enough supportive black and Latino voters to overcome his weakness with blue-collar whites. In the shadow of giant cranes over the Norfolk Shipyard last night, some of the president's supporters were working a phone bank, looking for help in that turnout effort.
MICHAEL PARKER: I'm Michael Parker and I'm a volunteer for President Obama's reelection campaign. We're going to be registering voters. We're going to be campaigning for the president. Oh, that would be outstanding.
HORSLEY: Of course, Virginia Republicans are not sitting still. Pete Snyder, who chairs the state Republican Party's victory effort, admits his side was caught napping four years ago. He vows that won't happen again.
PETE SNYDER: There is a huge swath of the electorate that bought one thing in 2008 and decided they didn't like what they got. And so we're doing the calls here to mine into that to make sure we get them in our rolls and out come November.
HORSLEY: Both sides have a great deal at stake here. Political analyst Sabato says if Romney were to lose Virginia, he'd have to win other more challenging states in order to capture the White House. And while Mr. Obama has more mathematical routes to re-election, Virginia is a critical bellwether for the president as well.
SABATO: If you can't carry a state with a 5.6 percent unemployment rate when you can make a strong case that it's federal dollars that have kept the rate that low, how are you going to win other states with higher unemployment rates?
HORSLEY: Sabato has a phrase for his home state's newfound status as political pivot point. He calls Virginia the new Ohio. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Virginia Beach.
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