By Paul West, Tribune Washington Bureau –
ASHBURN, Va. — With the presidential contest in Virginia teetering on a knife’s edge, Mitt Romney is counting on the economic concerns of suburban women to lock up a state that’s a must-carry for him.
Joanie Smerdzinski, 34, is one of them. She voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and still finds him more likable than his Republican rival. “I mean, would I want to hang out with Romney? No,” said the political independent, who also disagrees with Romney’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
But personality and social issues won’t secure her vote. “I think the economy is the key issue,” said Smerdzinski, who was only leaning toward Romney until he surprised her with his performance in the first debate. “I thought he handled himself well and seemed to have a better plan to get the economy on track.”
According to public and private polling, Romney holds a marginal lead in this state, thanks to a huge advantage among white men. Obama needs to expand his support among women, Democrats say, to avoid losing a state he won last time and led this year until recently. His closing message is aimed at voters like Stephanie Kolar, a personal counselor who says that Obama’s “values are more in line with mine.”
“Women’s health issues are always important to me, women’s reproductive rights issues, even though it does not affect me personally,” said the 47-year-old, whose two children include a teenage daughter. She isn’t persuaded by Romney’s recent efforts to moderate his image. “His presentation seems compassionate, but people can fake ‘good’ for a period of time,” Kolar said.
These women live in one of the new bellwethers of American politics, exurban Loudoun County, about 25 miles from downtown Washington. Along with the far suburbs of Richmond and Norfolk, the outer suburbs of northern Virginia are the real battlegrounds in the fight for the state’s 13 electoral votes, and independent women are prime targets for last-ditch persuasion.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Loudoun was, for a time, the nation’s fastest growing county, boosted by federal government spending and booming employment at tech companies like AOL. New developments sprang from forests and fields, including Belmont Greene, a white-collar community of traditionally styled houses and dark green lawns. But growth has slowed and houses have recovered only a third of the value that was lost when the bubble burst.
Politics is rarely a big topic of neighborhood conversation, which is more likely to revolve around the exploits of the Stone Bridge Bulldogs (rated the top high school sports program in Virginia by Sports Illustrated in 2007). Pumpkins and brightly colored Halloween decorations are far more plentiful in front yards than candidate signs.
Yet interviews at front doors and kitchen tables revealed no shortage of opinion about a presidential campaign that is bombarding Belmont Greene with nonstop TV ads and five or six mail pieces a day. Voters are worried about the country’s future, disappointed by how the candidates squabbled in the debates and desperate for the contest to end.
Malori Jordan, 24, voted for John McCain last time because she thought Obama lacked the experience to be president. Now a stay-at-home mom with a 4-month-old, she’s turned off by what she regards as a Republican assault on women’s rights and contraception.
She decided to back the president “as soon as they introduced who Mitt Romney was,” Jordan said, referring to the attacks last summer by Obama and his allies on Romney’s personal taxes, business dealings and anti-abortion stance.
Romney supporter Sue Hathaway, who works for the local school system and has a daughter in college, worries about how anyone can find a job in this sluggish economy. She “really didn’t know Romney” until the debates, she said, but came away with a sense that he is “presidential and certainly more honest” than Obama.
Romney “wants to return us to a more American way of life. That’s how I see him,” she said while preparing dinner for her husband, Mike, who spent decades as a Republican aide in the U.S. Senate and, at 75, teaches math to special education students.
Jennifer Bohlander is sticking with Obama, though she says his performance as president has left something to be desired.
“He’s no Bill Clinton,” said the 41-year-old, arms folded, as she stood on the front porch with her husband, Steve, a Delta Air Lines pilot and staunch Romney supporter. Obama lacks backbone in dealing with other countries — “Maybe he lays down a little bit too much” — she said, and is too eager to offer government assistance to some who may not need it. She’s deeply disappointed that the candidates haven’t talked about the environmental threats facing the planet.
But the president, she said, inherited “a big mess. I don’t think anybody could have turned it around in four years.” Bohlander acknowledges that she “actually almost liked (Romney) in that first debate…. But I don’t believe a word Romney says. And if he gets in there, he’ll just flip-flop on everything.”
Last-minute image shaping, apparently aimed at Virginia’s undecided female voters, includes a pro-Romney “super PAC” ad that projects a softer image of him. He is shown hugging an Iraq war veteran from Massachusetts, a double amputee, who describes Romney as someone who “cares deeply about people who are struggling.”
The Romney campaign is also rebutting a recent Obama attack ad that made it seem as though the Republican wanted to ban abortion in all cases. In Romney’s response ad, a woman tells viewers that Romney favors exceptions in cases of rape or incest, or to save the mother’s life.
Obama is countering with a new commercial that features video clips of Romney declaring that he wants to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. “No matter what Mitt Romney’s ads say, we know what he’ll do,” a female narrator says.