Howard Fineman on Obama's Southern Strategy

As a well-traveled field organizer for Sen. Barack Obama, Jason Berry lives on Facebook. But it wasn't of much use when the campaign sent him to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. An agricultural region that lies just beyond the gravitational pull of Washington, D.C., the valley is populated by rural Southerners who network the old-fashioned way—face to face. So Berry's first move was to dispatch volunteers with sign-up sheets to the July Fourth fireworks celebration in Winchester, the largest town in the valley. Now he's concentrating on bake sales, barbecues, ag fairs and other get-togethers that remain central to country life. Berry's—and Obama's—goals are two-fold: to register and turn out supportive voters, of course, but also to create a web of locals who will testify to their personal belief in the candidate. "They're character witnesses," says Berry.

Obama needs them—in the valley and elsewhere in the South—if he plans to make good on his pledge to compete seriously below the Mason-Dixon line. It is a region that essentially has belonged to the Republican Party since the 1960s. Even Virginia, which has been turning blue as its Washington-area suburbs mushroom, hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since LBJ in 1964.

Undaunted by history—or the fact that he is a Yankee with a liberal voting record—Obama is committing staff and major TV advertising in three Southern states: Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. In all three, the theory is the same: to generate a sky-high turnout among young voters and among the region's heavy concentration of African-Americans. Skeptics call the projections unrealistic and the strategy a fool's errand.

Except in Virginia. "It's in play, no question," says Michael DuHaime, Sen. John McCain's political director. This pivotal moment was years in the making. In 1989, the state elected the nation's first African-American governor, Democrat Doug Wilder. A new generation of voters with no connection to the Old South has flocked to the Washington suburbs for defense and high-tech jobs. In this decade, Virginia has elected successive Democratic governors, both of them immigrants to the state. The first, Mark Warner, is expected to easily win a U.S. Senate seat this year; his reverse coattails could help Obama. The current governor, Tim Kaine, could wind up as veep on the ticket. As for McCain, DuHaime points out that the GOP candidate has strong appeal in the state's vast military establishment and among independents in the suburbs.

Smart-aleck analysts declare that Virginia is no longer a Southern state. But that is only half true. Winchester sports a fancy wine bar, but the Confederate soldier statue still stands just down the street. Rebel general Stonewall Jackson harried retreating Union troops through town in 1862. A century later, a Winchester-based political machine, run by the late Harry Byrd Sr., led a "Massive Resistance" movement against integration. Even though Warner and Kaine ran as NASCAR-loving centrists wary of taxes and of gun control, they got whacked in the valley. "It surprises me that Obama's campaign is penetrating here," says Adrian O'Connor, the editorial page editor of the Winchester Star, which is still owned by the Byrd family.

For Berry, the Obama organizer, the key is not to come off as an alien "penetrating" force, but as an unassuming fellow eager to help the locals unlock neighbor to-neighbor sentiments in a region that the GOP has long taken for granted. "There are lots of disgruntled Republicans coming to us," he says. As the McCain campaign counterattacks—calling Obama every name in the book—Berry will have to rely on his new network idea—"that friends will tell friends: we believe in Barack, so it's OK if you do, too."