War hero McCain is deserted by voters in military state
As you drive along the highway towards the world's largest Marine Corp base, a huge sign pronounces "Virginia, John McCain Country".
The Republican nominee's oft-told personal story as a navy fighter pilot and a Vietnam prisoner-of-war who endured years of horrific torture should have given him a lock on this state. But, as elsewhere in the country, support for the war hero appears to be waning amid deep concerns about the economy. Mr McCain's aggressive stance on Iraq; questions he has raised about his rival's character, and even overtly racist digs heard from Republicans on the campaign trail do not appear to be pushing voters into his arms.
"I have never voted in my life," Staff Sergeant Willie Hamilton admitted, somewhat shamefacedly, as the sun set over the base in Quantico. "I'm from the South and voting was never been a big issue back in South Carolina. But I'm 37 years old now and I intend to vote for Senator Obama."
The ramrod military discipline of the Marine Corps forbids talk of politics to ensure a chain of command that leads all the way to the Commander-in-Chief is never compromised – but Sgt Hamilton was adamant that the public needed to know that there are plenty of Obama supporters in the military. "What we need is a president who will help the whole country, not just a bit of it," he said. "A decision to vote Republican might help me today but it won't tomorrow when I have left the military."
Virginia has been faithfully in the Republican column in every presidential election for the past 44 years. The state's large military population and a wider community of veterans and family members could always be relied on. However, judging by a series of interviews with serving and former members of the Marines over the weekend, that run could be coming to an end.
From a veterans' bingo game to a raucous karaoke session with soldiers and their girlfriends belting out country and western songs, the anecdotal evidence all pointed to a Democrat groundswell. in the tidy subdivisions of new houses dotted across the hilltops around Quantico, there are no signs screaming support for the Republicans and their war hero nominee, and almost everyone who stops to chat says that either they are on the fence or intend to vote for Mr Obama.
The official polls are mirroring the view on the streets. The latest poll of polls, compiled by Real Clear Politics, yesterday showed Mr Obama with an overall 51 to 44 point lead in Virginia, having overturned the two-point lead Mr McCain had just a month ago.
Before his campaign went into a tailspin, the Republican nominee was so confident of winning the state that he didn't even open a Virginia headquarters. How times have changed. Yesterday, Mr McCain staged a rally in Virginia Beach, where he sought to convince supporters he could come back to defeat his rival despite drooping poll numbers.
He said he had been a fighter all his life and would continue to be one as president, tackling the country's economic problems and foreign policy challenges from day one. "The hour is late; our troubles are getting worse; our enemies watch," he told the crowd. "We have to act immediately. We have to change direction now. We have to fight, and you and I know how to do that."
Fighting talk was clearly the order of the day, with a promise to "whip" his rival's "you-know-what" at the third and final presidential debate in New York State tomorrow.
Over at the Museum of the Marine Corps, one serving Marine who wished to remain anonymous, said he thought that, at 72, Mr McCain was too old to become president, and he worried about what would happen to the country, were it to be placed in the hands of his running mate Sarah Palin. And against the backdrop of reconstructions of famous American battles, a group of four Vietnam war veterans were discussing who they would be voting for, and Mr Obama came out on top. Ed Sullivan, 63 and Frank Merxbauer, 64, had both decided on the Democratic nominee; Dave Prouhef, 61, was undecided. Only Bruce Longbine, 62, was openly hostile to the Democrat. "Hell No!" he bellowed at the idea of an Obama presidency.
At the Main Street Bar and Grill, Johnny Forsyth, a Marine captain, was knocking back the shots and shaking his head at the younger Marines and their girlfriends writhing on the dance floor. "These guys are all on the Obama bandwagon and I can't get it into their heads that he will be a disaster for the military," he said. "I've done Iraq and what we need is a president who understands the mission like John McCain does."