Republicans feel heat in bellwether Virginia

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Everyone knew the Senate race in Virginia was going to be one of the tightest contests and 88-year-old Janice Johnson wanted to ensure she was part of the fight.

"I always vote," said Mrs Johnson, as she left the polling station at St George's Episcopal Church in Arlington yesterday morning, having cast her vote for the Democratic candidate, Jim Webb. "And I think we are due for a change."

Mrs Johnson has seen a few presidents over the years and she has little affection for the present incumbent of the White House. "What has he done right?" she quickly retorted, when asked what George Bush had done so wrong.

Arlington is perhaps the most strongly Democratic county in Virginia and there was no shortage of such opinion as voters went to the polls to vote for a Senate seat that both parties were desperate to win. Likewise there was no shortage of voters happy and ready to reveal that they had cast their vote for Mr Webb, a former secretary of the navy, who entered the race in a dead heat with his Republican rival, George Allen.

It was a much tougher task trying to find a Republican voter. The volunteer from the local Republican party association who was standing outside the polling station admitted it was tough going, but after a little while, a member of the rare species introduced himself. Gregg Updike, a government employee, was smartly dressed in a suit and a Stars and Stripes patterned tie. He described himself as a conservative and said he had voted for Mr Allen. The priorities for him had been national security and lower taxes. "The war in Iraq is a necessary evil. It's better to be over there, having them fight our military than over here," said Mr Updike. "Am I happy about the way it's being fought? No, but the other side offer no plan."

Mr Updike was not alone in the brief and unscientific straw poll conducted by The Independent. Kirsten Duncan, a 30-year-old education consultant, said she had voted for a straight Republican ticket. Education was the most important issue, she said, and the Republicans offered the best policies.

But overwhelmingly, the people who had queued for 90 minutes or so to vote on a bright but chilly morning, were wearing "I Voted Democrat" stickers on their lapels. Brian Zaleski was typical. The 32-year-old environmental consultant said he was concerned about the assault to civil liberties under Mr Bush and had used his vote to show his opposition to the government.