Battleground Virginia: Is Mitt Romney's debate showing a game-changer?

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan fired up a rally of the faithful Thursday in Virginia, where polls for Romney and GOP Senate nominee George Allen have been dragging. But Mr. Romney's unexpected star turn in Wednesday's debate could change that, if undecided voters get on board, too. 

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (l.) and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan wave to the crowd at a campaign rally in Fishersville, Va., on Thursday.

Mitt Romney’s debate performance in Denver fired up the party faithful in central Virginia on Thursday, his first public campaign stop after dueling with President Obama in Colorado on Wednesday night.

While political analysts say Mr. Romney’s debate showing could help him gain ground in the Old Dominion, several uncommitted voters the Monitor spoke with Thursday remained up in the air.

But Romney partisans, there can be no doubt, were fired up in this part of a key battleground state in the presidential race.

“Did you hear about the debate last night?” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia, an invocation that brought resounding applause at a Fishersville, Va., rally that was part county fair, part political rally, and part country music concert due to an appearance by singer Trace Adkins.

The Romney campaign said more than 5,700 people attended the event, according to published reports. The rally featured miles of snarled traffic beforehand and scores of attendees taking in the event from outside its chain-link perimeter.

With polls showing both Romney and GOP Senate candidate George Allen flagging in recent weeks, several conservatives in the Shenandoah Valley said they were increasingly nervous about the Republican Party’s chances on Election Day going into Wednesday night.

Come Thursday, things were different.

“I’m energized by last night,” said Harvey Almarode, a retired teacher from nearby Stuarts Draft, Va., who said he was previously “skeptical about how the campaign was going.”

Romney’s combination of aggressively battling Mr. Obama while maintaining a “gentlemanly manner” was “awesome. It really exceeded all my expectations,” he said.

On a night when Romney and running mate Paul Ryan, who was also in attendance, received the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, the former governor of Massachusetts used points from the debate to try to drive home long-standing criticisms of Obama.

“I got the chance to ask the president questions that people across the country have wanted to ask him, such as why is it that he pushed ‘Obamacare’ at a time when we had 23 million people out of work,” Romney said.

“I asked, you know: Why is it that the middle class is still buried in this country? Why is it we have 23 million people out of work? Why is it half of our kids coming out of college can't find good jobs? Why is it that 1 out of 6 people have fallen into poverty?” he continued.

Romney’s debate performance may even reverberate in the state’s ultracompetitive Senate race between two former governors, Tim Kaine (D) and Mr. Allen. Several recent polls had shown both Obama and Kaine opening up wider leaders on their Republican competitors.

Bob Holsworth, a longtime analyst of Virginia politics, believes Romney put an end to the GOP’s polling doldrums in the commonwealth on Wednesday night.

“You’ve had a lot of these polls in the last week or two showing Kaine had a lead – and that evaporated last night,” Mr. Holsworth said. Romney “at least halted [declining poll numbers] last night, and my guess is that he turned it around some. That was very good news for Allen – his slide is likely to be stopped, as well.”

Two wavering voters who chose Obama in 2008 but don’t have strong ties to either party – the exact kind of voter Romney needs to win to overtake the president – said Thursday they thought Romney had a strong performance, but neither has decided for whom to pull the lever for come Nov. 6.

Sandra Swartz, who works in the state education system, said she’s concerned about cuts to education budgets and, while she likes what she knows about the president’s health-care reform law, she’s unclear on all its implications.

Jason Bryant is in a similar mode. He asked several questions of Susan Allen, wife of Senate candidate Allen, when Mrs. Allen dropped by his office, a small research laboratory, in Mt. Jackson, Va., on Thursday afternoon.

Mr. Bryant watched the presidential debate with his wife and was struck by the candidates' fundamental disagreement over what seemed to him like unarguable facts: Does Mitt Romney want a $5 trillion tax cut or not, he wondered.

“Who is actually telling the truth?” Bryant, who lives in Harrisonburg, Va., said.

Both undecided voters say that they aren’t closely following the Senate race and that they aren’t big-time consumers of political news. They agreed on how they’d likely make a final determination: watching the final two debates.

But among the party faithful, there was a nearly unanimous feeling of relief and excitement after watching Romney’s debate peformance.

“That did my heart good to see what went on there,” Mr. Almarode said of the debate. “We’re in this now.”

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