Presidential rivals dig in to prevent campaigns being blown off course

Hurricane Sandy forces candidates to reschedule events in a knife-edge state

Haymarket, Virginia

At the height of America's neck-and-neck presidential race, hostilities have abruptly been suspended in this critical battleground state as Hurricane Sandy bears down on the East Coast of the United States, threatening to disrupt life for days in Virginia and much of the middle of the Atlantic seaboard.

With the attentions of local inhabitants focused not on the election but on the immediate priority of battening down ahead of the impending monster storm, Mitt Romney called off a rally here at Haymarket, 40 miles west of Washington, as well as two other scheduled events in Virginia.

Barack Obama has also reshuffled his schedule, dropping a planned appearance in Virginia with the former President, Bill Clinton, set for tomorrow.

The President instead headed early to Florida, another swing state where he narrowly trails Mr Romney, while his challenger campaigned today with his running mate, Paul Ryan, in Ohio, the most hotly contested state of all, where Mr Obama, according to most polls, is still fractionally ahead.

But the shift in focus here, from frenetic late canvassing to boarding up windows and stocking up on essential supplies, will be short-lived.

With just nine days to go until polling day on 6 November, Virginia remains finely poised. A Washington Post poll yesterday put Mr Obama in the lead by 51 per cent to 47 per cent of likely voters, but other recent surveys have shown either a dead heat or a tiny advantage for his Republican rival.

In the past decade, population flows and changing demographics have turned Virginia from a Republican redoubt into a swing state, enabling Mr Obama four years ago to become the first Democrat to carry it in a presidential election since Lyndon Johnson's national landslide in 1964.

This time, both candidates have a plausible roadmap to victory in the state, and its 13 electoral college votes that could determine the outcome.

For the President, the key is to get out the vote in the state's most populated areas – the capital Richmond, south-east Virginia around Hampton and the Norfolk naval base and, above all, the new Virginia of the ever-expanding suburbs of Washington DC – where his edge among black, Hispanic and women voters counts most.

For Mr Romney, leading among white and male voters, his natural strongholds are rural and southern parts of Virginia (the core of the old Confederacy and, many old-timers would say, the "real" Virginia), plus the coal-mining region in the south-west.

Haymarket, where the DC suburbs start to peter out and the Appalachians are visible on the skyline, is where these two Virginias meet.

And, once the weather has returned to something like normal, he will assuredly be back before election day. The contest is now down to – at most – eight states: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado and Nevada, all of them won by Mr Obama in 2008. All today are on a knife-edge.

But if the President can hang on to Ohio, then it will be close to impossible for Mr Romney, even if he wins Florida, to capture the White House without Virginia.

Before his dismal performance in the first presidential debate, Mr Obama seemed to be cruising to victory here, with a lead of up to 10 per cent.

But Mr Romney has mounted a powerful comeback, reaching out to women voters who had been put off by radical anti-abortion initiatives pressed by Republicans in the Virginia state legislature.

He has also courted the military vote, directly among active servicemen and veterans and indirectly by emphasising the thousands of defence industry jobs in Virginia that, he says, are at risk because of future Pentagon budget cuts in a second Obama term.

Virginia: the facts

Nickname: “Old Dominion” and “Mother of Presidents"

Population: 8,096,604 (2011)

Electoral votes: 13

Motto: “Thus Always to Tyrants”

Average household income: $60,665 (in US $50,054)

Governor: Robert ‘Bob’ McDonnell (Rep)

Senators:Jim Webb (Democrat)
Mark Warner (Republican)

Voting record: 2008 – Democrat 52.7% 2004 – Republican 53.7%

Voting record: 2008 – Democrat 52.7% 2004 – Republican 53.7%

Famous Coloradoans:

Gabrielle Douglas (gymnast, 2012 Olympic Gold medallist), Ella Fitzgerald (singer), Pharrell Williams (musician)

Race demographics:
64 per cent white
19 per cent black
7 per cent Hispanic

Unemployment rate: 6% (June 2012)

Did you know? Virginia has been home to more US Presidents than any other state, hence its motto “Mother of Presidents". George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor and Woodrow Wilson all hailed from Virginia.

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