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Salena Zito: Toss-up in the Old Dominion

| Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012, 8:58 p.m.
Republican U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) introduces U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his vice-presidential running mate during a campaign event at the retired battleship USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia, in this August 11, 2012, file photo. Though Ryan's budget-cutting plan has made him one of the most polarizing figures in U.S. politics, critics agree on one thing: The man needs serious help with his wardrobe. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)


Wanda Snead wants the same thing for her family, community and country: “Someone who will take charge of this mess that is happening in our economy and get the country moving again.”

Snead, 56, and her husband, Sam, 64, run a real estate company in this charming Northern Virginia town near Shenandoah National Park, where majestic Skyline Drive meanders down to North Carolina.

Owners of the company for more than 30 years, in 2009 they had 10 agents and two offices; today, three agents and one office.

“We are very fortunate and blessed to be able to keep our doors open still, but it has been a struggle,” she said, adding that housing keeps America's economy going and “Obama has clearly never understood that.”

The Sneads are not fanatical Republicans. They are independent voters who, for the first time, have a political sign in front of their business along John Marshall Highway in the center of town.

The large cardboard Romney-Ryan sign waves in the wind as cars filled with urban Virginians and Washingtonians enter the national park, known for cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, Appalachian Trail hikes, primitive camping, rustic lodges and steep climbs for cyclists on weekend escapes.

“I do most of the property management for our business, taking care of the rental properties,” she explained. “That has been the toughest part to watch. It seems like every week I have people who are losing their jobs and saying, ‘I can't pay the rent.'”

That doesn't just impact the person who lost a job, she said. “It impacts my livelihood, theirs, the grocery store down the street, the shops in and around town, the tax base, the schools — the entire soul of the community.

“In my younger days I used to work in factories where we made things. I have been an employee and I have been a boss, so I completely understand who Mitt Romney is and what he can do for the country.”

Democrat Armando Torres, 53, from Bristow in suburban Northern Virginia, is a master electrician and engineer; he also owns a small property-management business.

“We have just been devastated, not only in this economy but in the decisions we have to make for our future,” he said.

An electrical engineer by day, he runs his own business after punching out. He worries about his employees every minute: “It's gotten to the point where I am not bringing in enough to make payroll, which means I am either laying people off or borrowing money.”

He and his wife, Kim, said Romney has their full support in November.

“It is vital that he wins,” Torres said emphatically.

In 2008, Northern Virginia made up about a third of Virginia's vote for president and Barack Obama won there, 59-41, according to Kyle Kondik, a University of Virginia political analyst.

“Virginia's three main urban areas — Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Greater Richmond — made up 70 percent of the vote in 2008, and Obama won all three areas,” he explained.

Romney could flip Greater Richmond, but needs to hold down Obama's margins elsewhere.

Democrats and independents such as the Sneads and Torreses in Northern Virginia could easily cut into Obama's support.

Traveling south on U.S. 220, no support is visible for Obama or fellow Democrat Tim Kaine, seeking Virginia's open U.S. Senate seat against Republican George Allen. But Allen and Romney signs are everywhere.

On one large “Obama, Kaine and Douglas country” sign — referring to conservative Democrat John Douglas, running for Congress — duct tape covers “Obama” and “Kaine.”

The 30 percent of Virginians living in more rural areas will support Romney by big margins, but he'll face demographic challenges elsewhere, Kondik predicted.

“Virginia doesn't have nearly the same amount of non-college-educated whites as some other battlegrounds, like Ohio,” he said. “That's the group where Obama has seen a lot of erosion in support.”

And that, he said, makes Virginia “basically a coin flip right now.”

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media. (412-320-7879 or

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