CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia -- The Romney-Ryan "Victory Center" here is on Highway 29 a few miles north of the University of Virginia campus, and the phone-banking operation Wednesday night was in full swing. More than 15,000 calls are made per week from the campaign office that covers not only Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County, but also a 10-county area of north-central Virginia. Most of the volunteers in the office Wednesday were UVA College Republicans, who have already made more than 60,000 calls as part of a get-out-the-vote effort aimed at maximizing the GOP vote in this area, not only to help Mitt Romney win Virginia, but also to help elect George Allen to the U.S. Senate.
The director of the Charlottesville office is Nick O'Boyle, a slim 22-year-old who graduated from George Mason University this spring -- an awfully young fellow to be trusted with such a large responsibility. Much depends upon the labors of O'Boyle and other eager young Republicans across the Commonwealth, whose work may help determine the fate of the nation. Virginia is one of the 11 battleground states in this year's presidential election currently rated a "toss-up" by Real Clear Politics, and it may well be that as Virginia goes, so goes the country. Polls close in Virginia at 7 p.m. -- one of the first battlegrounds to report on Election Night -- and if the GOP can win the state by enough of a margin that the networks call it early for Romney, that encouraging news may have a ripple effect westward in Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa and Nevada.
Not long ago, this hopeful prospect might have seemed impossible for even the most optimistic Republican to imagine. As recently as Oct. 2, a Roanoke College poll reported President Obama leading by 8 points in Virginia, but in the past two weeks, the Old Dominion has shifted sharply toward the GOP challenger. Romney has led five of the seven most recent polls and, although the RCP average for Virginia still shows Obama with razor-thin lead, the Republicans here sense a strong enough momentum to carry them to victory on Nov. 6.
Anyone driving through this part of the state would notice the proliferation of yard signs for Romney, his running mate Paul Ryan and Allen's Senate campaign, while signs for Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the Democrat Senate hopeful, Tim Kaine, are surprisingly rare. Albemarle County is anchored by the liberal enclave at the UVA campus -- where the faculty probably has more Marxists than Republicans -- and thus leans toward Democrats at election time. Even in 2004, a high-water year for the GOP, Democrat John Kerry eked out a 51-48 percent win in this county over President Bush, who carried Virginia 54-46 percent. But what happened here in 2008 -- when Obama became the first Democrat to win Virginia since Lyndon Johnson did it in 1964 -- was a wipeout that crushed Republicans. Boosted by student enthusiasm, Obama won Albemarle County by a 19-point margin, with some 7,000 more votes than Kerry got in 2004, part of a statewide wave that helped the Democrat win Virginia by more than 200,000 votes, 53-47 percent.
This year, however, the shiny newness that made Obama such a historical phenomenon four years ago has worn off, as Hope and Change have given way to economic stagnation and political gridlock. Nearly all the excitement now -- in Virginia, as across the country -- is on the Republican side and, with less than three weeks remaining until Election Day, it appears unlikely the Obama campaign can close the "enthusiasm gap" that has broken wide open since Romney's decisive win in the first debate. Although the grassroots core of the Democratic Party was somewhat encouraged by Biden's performance in last week's vice-presidential debate and Obama's showing in Tuesday's town-hall debate, neither of those seemed to have the impact of Romney's stunning Oct. 3 breakthrough. The Gallup tracking poll released Wednesday showed Romney surging to a six-point lead nationally -- with the GOP challenger clearing the critical 50-percent threshold -- and there are now clear indicators that even Obama's campaign leadership knows the president's re-election chances are dwindling.
The Democrats are evidently shrinking their Electoral College map, in what looks like a defensive "triage" strategy to win just enough states to hold on to the White House. Team Obama already appears to have written off North Carolina, which the president narrowly won in 2008, but which he hasn't visited since the Democratic convention in Charlotte early last month. In a remarkable interview with National Journal's Major Garrett, top Obama strategist David Plouffe suggested that the Democrat is prepared to fall back to a last-ditch defense of just four battleground states -- Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire -- that would provide enough of an Electoral College cushion for Obama to squeak past to re-election. That would mean ceding not only North Carolina but also Colorado, Florida, and Virginia to Romney, and might permit the Republican turnout operation to maximize its margins in those states without the battering "headwind" of Democrat attack ads. (Such ads, however, continue to run, and there is not yet any sign of a let-up in the Democrat ad blitz.)
However, with the final days of the election season now ticking away, the Romney campaign's momentum continues, and events in Virginia may yet have nationwide impact. The front page of Thursday's Washington Times features a story about how the Obama administration's "war on coal" has thwarted plans by the tiny Appalachian town of Grundy to expand its airport. The hostile regulatory climate imposed by the president's environmental agenda has been a steady theme of Romney's stump speeches. The coal issue also resonates in Ohio, as well as Pennsylvania, which RCP likewise counts as a battleground state. Coal-industry advocates in Grundy are planning a rally Sunday, and their story could help dramatize the economic costs of the administration's anti-coal policies.
It is too early to conclude that Romney is on a direct path to the White House. Professor Glenn Reynolds has repeatedly warned in moments of optimism, "Don't get cocky." Yet if the political landscape keeps tilting toward the GOP, the first harbinger of a Republican victory may come on Election Night when the networks make the call in Virginia.