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Obama takes traditionally Republican Virginia

A Barack Obama supporter stopped by the campaign's headquarters in historic Winchester in western Virginia, just ahead of the election, looking for a yard sign to trumpet her support, but walked away disappointed.

The campaign had run out of signs, which dot yards and roads across the United States with candidates' names ahead of elections. The McCain headquarters in the traditionally conservative city, population 25,000, had also given out all its signs.

The heavy demand for lawn signs illustrates the excitement in Virginia over the presidential race, as the once reliably Republican state has become a battleground, where Obama has gained steady support and hopes to pick up 13 electoral votes in the country's system of winner-take-all, state-by-state contests.

Virginia's new prominence in electoral politics is part of Obama's decision to extend his party's reach by campaigning in states once written off by Democratic presidential candidates, including vast swaths of the South and mountain West.

In Virginia, where a Democrat has not won the presidential vote since 1964, polls that show Obama leading reflect not just growing unease with the faltering economy but changes in demographics among the increasingly cosmopolitan and Democrat northern suburbs that ring Washington.

The shift toward the Democrats is most evident in the so-called 'exurbs,' or outer suburbs, where rural and urban lifestyles are colliding and blending as farmland gives way to housing developments.

In Leesburg, north of Washington's Dulles International Airport, thousands flocked to hear Obama at a recent outdoor rally against a rally of tree-covered, rolling hills.

Jessica Bukowinski, 31, compared the excitement over a possible Obama presidency to the mobilization of the left to protest the start of the Iraq war.

'I never thought I'd see something like this in Leesburg with this many people I agreed with,' said Bukowkinski, who moved to the area with her husband three years ago from the liberal bastion of San Francisco and is pleased about contributing to the demographic shift.

That won't happen if outspoken McCain supporters waving signs and shouting slogans outside the rally have their way.

'He's anti-business - more importantly he's anti-small business, pro-union and pro-tax, none of which we need,' said Hunt McMahon, 38, owner of a small construction company, who was among the dozen protestors.

Republicans hold out hope that the state's conservative rural counties will outweigh Democratic gains in the suburbs and that enough Republicans will turn out in areas with shifting demographics.

'The base here is very energized by McCain,' said Carol Grabowski, a Republican volunteer in Winchester. 'We don't feel in any regard that this a done deal.'

McCain and running mate Sarah Palin have held seven rallies in the state, while Obama has been in Virginia 10 times in the last two months of the general election campaign.

Obama's team has opened dozens of local Virginia offices, even in areas where Republicans have long dominated.

In most of the state, racial tensions do not appear to be playing much of a role, despite Virginia's 19th-century legacy as the capital of the Civil War Confederacy. In fact, Virginia in 1990 become the first state to ever elect a black governor.

'We don't look at people as a colour anymore,' said Debra McBride, 50, an African-American who attended Obama's Leesburg rally with her daughter, a 20-year-old university student.

Winchester at the northern end of the state's scenic Shenandoah Valley, where historic Civil War sites and a picturesque downtown shopping district draw visitors, would seem like a McCain stronghold. Voters here twice voted for Bush, but it is also home to a university campus with 3,000 students - young voters tend to favour Obama - and Winchester voted for Democratic governors in 2001 and 2005.

The political shift has fueled a much more vocal debate than in earlier elections.

'In the past, I was hesitant to talk politics with a good many people here, because I knew that my thinking was much more liberal than many of my neighbours,' said Brooks Nanna, 52, who sought an Obama sign for her yard at the Winchester campaign headquarters.

Candy Schadle, 67, who spent a recent day window shopping with her daughter-in-law in a downtown retail district, however, was quick to voice her support for McCain.

'I think Obama is too socialist for me. I don't want to give everything I've worked for all my life (in taxes),' Schadle said.

Her daughter-in-law, Nicole Nedela, 35, said she planned to vote for the Republican, in part because of his tax policies and his experience, something she feels that Obama lacks with less than four years in the US Senate.

Nedela, whose husband supports Obama, has agreed to put aside political differences to keep peace at home, a strategy adopted by supporters of both candidates in this bucolic community, looking ahead to life after Tuesday no matter who wins.

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