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Obama's schedule: Why Virginia 5?

By Carrie Dann and Tom Curry
President Barack Obama heads to Charlottesville tonight to campaign for his 2008 coattail-beneficiary Rep. Tom Perriello. The rally near the University of Virginia campus will draw students from the picturesque college town, which – along with surrounding Albemarle county – generally functions as a blue island amidst the more conservative counties of central Virginia.

The president’s decision to campaign four days before Election Day with Perriello – the only House candidate to have a solo appearance with the commander in chief this cycle -- may seem a little puzzling: NBC News and the Cook Political Report both rate the race at “Lean Republican.” There are at least two other more competitive House races in the state where Democrats’ chances are better.

Many observers, including Perriello’s opponent state Sen. Robert Hurt, have suggested that the president’s visit is merely a thank you and a last hurrah of sorts for the Democrat, who has staunchly defended his votes in favor of the health care overhaul and the stimulus bill – earning him a reputation as a hero to progressives.

That may be the case. But a look back at the district’s political history shows that the White House may be crunching numbers that indicate an Obama visit could substantially boost Democratic turnout in what’s shaping up to be a closer race than analysts expected just a few weeks ago -- in part because of a conservative third party candidate who could pull votes away from Hurt.

Perriello actually outperformed Obama in his home district in 2008 (McCain narrowly won it, while Perriello pulled out his victory by a mere 727 votes.)

But Obama’s presence on the ticket in 2008 still dramatically bumped up Democratic turnout in the Charlottesville area – which, along with the city of Danville further south, was responsible for almost 40 percent of Perriello’s votes two years ago.

In 2004 and 2006 respectively, Democratic House candidate Al Weed got just 36 and 40 percent of the total vote respectively against conservative GOP nominee Virgil Goode.

Weed barely won Albemarle County when he shared the ticket with Democrat John Kerry; he won the city of Charlottesville by about 6,000 votes.

In comparison, when he challenged Goode in 2008, Perriello nabbed 63 percent of Albemarle and won the city by over 12,000 votes.

Hurt, Perriello’s opponent, offered his hypothesis about the visit in a conference call with reporters Friday.

“The president recognizes that his favorite congressman is in trouble and so he’s coming down to lend a hand in an effort to energize a base that heretofore has not been energized,” Hurt said. “It is telling that he is coming here which to many might be the last place one would think the president would be wanted.”

Hurt noted that Obama is not campaigning for two other endangered Democrats in the state who have been less reliable votes for the White House’s policy proposals.

“He’s not going to the Ninth District, Rep. Rick Boucher, again a place where the Democrat congressman there stood with his people on one of the signature issues – the health care bill – and not the president’s agenda,” Hurt said.