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'Change' defines both camps McCain, Obama give pivotal word sharply different meanings

If you need any proof that "change" is far more than a slogan used by men who want to be president, just listen to John Yalch and Eric Eisinger.

Yalch considered himself a Reagan Republican until George W. Bush changed his mind. Now a proud Barack Obama supporter, he willing withstands a driving rainstorm to hear the Democratic presidential nominee speak at a recent rally in this Southern town where, 146 years ago, the Confederate Army won one of its most decisive victories.

"I don't want four more years of the last eight years," said Yalch, a 59-year-old Vietnam veteran from Woodbridge, Va., who said he was "excited about Barack Obama's ability to reinstate our country as a viable force in the world."

Five days later and 50 miles to the north, Eric Eisinger railed against Bush as "maybe the worst president in my lifetime" -- and insisted that John McCain, the Republican nominee, has proved that he represents the needed change.

"I like the fact that he's all about decency and honesty and patriotism," said Eisinger, a 43-year-old budget analyst and Buffalo native who felt devoted enough to McCain to attend a GOP debate-watching party Thursday in Arlington, Va., where he now lives. "And he'd be the first adult we've had in the White House since the first George Bush."

Then again, this overwhelming sense of impending change, no matter who wins the election, is not just about Bush.

It's about policies Obama and McCain would like to enact along with political and economic forces they can't control -- and demographic and cultural changes that have transformed this onetime slave state into the swing state that could make Obama the first African-American president.

A month before Election Day, Virginia has become one of the hottest stops on the presidential campaign trail. Obama's visit Saturday to Newport News was his second to Virginia in a week, and McCain has held 24 campaign events here so far.

Much of the activity has taken place in communities like Fredericksburg -- "exurbs" of Washington, D.C., that are home to large numbers of younger, moderate-income families especially vulnerable to economic tough times.

"This is going to be the major swing vote in Virginia," said Patrick Ottenhoff, an analyst from Virginia who follows the political geography on his Web site, "I'd argue it's the swing vote nationally in a lot of states."

For many, living in a swing state comes as a bit of a shock. After all, Virginia has been reliably Republican in presidential elections for 40 years.

"It really makes me feel like my vote on Nov. 4 for Barack Obama is going to mean something," said Timothy Jensen, 37, a Rochester native and Niagara University graduate now living in West Springfield, Va.

"Hopefully, it will be one vote to give Virginia to Obama and elect a president who can bring change to America and the world, because I hate to think what will be left for my two sons if we continue on the path we are on," added Jensen, a data processor for a political research firm.

Interviews with dozens of Virginians from across the state, but mostly in its populous eastern corridor from Arlington south to Virginia Beach, reveal similar concerns among voters of every political persuasion.

Some mention the long war in Iraq, while more focus on the recent slowdown in the economy. But often voters make the same point in the end.

"There was really a lot of mismanagement" in the Bush administration, said Liz Wheel, 29, a budget analyst and McCain supporter from Arlington who grew up in Cattaraugus.

That prompts the call for change in both parties, although change means something different for Obama and McCain -- and their followers.

>Obama's message

Early in his campaign, Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois who relied on eloquence and a disciplined, well-funded campaign team to defeat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in the primaries, coined the phrase "Change We Can Believe In."

The change he promises would be stark. Key to Obama's plans, to be described in greater detail in later stories in this series, include a draw-down of the Iraq War, expanding health coverage at a cost of up to $65 billion a year, a massive investment in alternative energy sources and a tax approach that would soak the rich but cut rates for the middle class.

"We need a president who will change this economy so it works for your family," Obama said at his Fredericksburg rally, which drew 12,000 people to the rain-drenched quad of Mary Washington University while another 14,000 queued up outside. "We need a president who will fight for the middle class every single day."

Obama, as he often does, said McCain would do nothing but regurgitate the Bush policies of the last eight years.

But the Arizona senator promises some changes of his own. While he advocates a foreign policy at least as muscular as Bush's and an extension of Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, he is pushing a complex health plan that would tax the benefits businesses now offer and a do-everything approach to energy that includes offshore drilling.

"Let me offer an advanced warning to the old big-spending, do-nothing, me-first country-second Washington crowd," McCain said at a sun-drenched rally that drew 23,000 to a park in Fairfax, Va., in mid-September. "Change is coming. Change is coming, and it's coming to our nation's capital."

While Obama and McCain say similar things at just about every campaign stop, their followers seem to hear their calls for change sharply differently.

Obama supporters indicated they believe he would bring change not only in policy, but also of style. Hearing echoes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his soaring speeches, they say he would be an inspirational president for the United States and the world.

"If anyone can bring a new vision to Washington, he can," said Liz Mackey, 48, a state government employee from Richmond. "Listen to him. You can just feel the energy."

>McCain backers

McCain voters, on the other hand, often describe him as a more competent, more fiscally responsible George W. Bush -- while nearly always stressing that the change Obama represents absolutely terrifies them.

"The change he talks about is a change to a failed solution," said David Jividen, 46, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and West Seneca native who now lives in Alexandria, Va. "I think he'd be like a socialist. . . . I think it's change to chaos."

Yet in Virginia, as in the nation, campaign promises pale compared with larger forces.

While Virginia's huge military population and a big evangelical Christian population in the south play in McCain's favor, demographic changes now give Democrats a fighting chance after decades of Republican dominance.

In this decade, the politically progressive Washington, D.C., suburbs have grown at nearly three times the rate of the conservative Hampton Roads region -- and huge Democratic turnout in northern Virginia helped put Democrats in the governor's mansion twice in those years.

"It's mainly the growth of northern Virginia that's changing things," said Larry Sabato, who runs the Institute of Politics at the University of Virginia. "It accounts for a third of the state's vote now, and it's garnering a lot of new voter registrations among people who are very attracted to Democrats. This is not your grandfather's Virginia."

Obama, however, isn't just counting on northern Virginia to put him over the top. He has opened 41 offices across the state, while enlisting bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley to cut a radio ad to be played across coal country in the southwest corner of the state.

McCain got a late start here, but now has 24 offices.

"The campaign understands the state is in play," said Christopher Malagisi, 27, an East Amherst native who now lives in Virginia and coordinates McCain's youth outreach efforts in the Northeast. "They're fighting hard."

McCain is fighting to build Republican turnout in face of a massive effort by Obama, both here and nationally, to register and turn out huge numbers of blacks and young voters. Obama's effort might work especially well in Virginia, home to an unusually high population of blacks, college students and young adults.

"Because this is an African-American candidate, blacks appear to be motivated to degrees never seen before," said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. "He seems to have really excited the young adult population, too."

>Too much change?

That, nevertheless, might not be enough to counter racial attitudes that are likely to hurt Obama on Election Day, both Kidd and Sabato said.

Nineteen years after Virginia became the first state to elect a black governor, Kidd recounted a conversation in which a member of a group of retirees conceded "he just can't bring himself to vote for a black man."

And Thomas Graham, the Democratic chairman in rural southwest Virginia, said the false rumor that Obama is a Muslim still haunts him in those parts.

"One of the high school teachers even said it in class," Graham said. "My kid came home and said: 'Can you believe that?' "

In other words, this campaign is not only a referendum on how much change the candidates have offered, but also about how much change America is willing to accept.

"With Obama, I don't think it's really a race thing so much as it is an identity thing," said Ottenhoff, of "He's running against a veteran and a war hero, and he's a skinny black guy with a strange name who doesn't share as much with the country in terms of identity and history."

No matter who wins, the question remains: In this time of war and economic turmoil, are the changes roiling the country too big to be controlled by any one man?

"I am sick and tired of the promise of 'change,' " said Elise King-Lynch, a McCain supporter and Hamburg native in her early 50s who now lives in Hart-wood, Va., near Fredericksburg. "This means nothing to me as change can go either way. It would be refreshing to hear any candidate utter the word 'improve.' "

But that might be asking too much, said James Spencer, 39, an architect and Obama supporter who grew up on Buffalo's East Side and lives in Alexandria, Va.

"This is a very exciting time, but my only concern is that I'm not really sure what either candidate will be able to do because of the economic situation and the war situation," Spencer said. "How much can either of them really do, apart from uncoupling us from the debacle we're presently in?"




Jerry Zremski of The News Washington Bureau travels to five battleground states critical to the presidential election to talk with voters and experts about issues that matter to voters in Western New York.

Today: "Change" - What it means in Virginia and throughout the nation.

Saturday: "The Long War" - The War on Terror, how it plays out in Colorado.

Oct. 18: "The Health Care Time Bomb" - Florida and the issue ignored.

Oct. 25: "New Energy" - Pennsylvania debates our energy future.

Nov. 2: "The Bubble Bursts" - The economic slump hits Ohio.

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