ROANOKE, VIRGINIA // Campaign historians might look back to last Friday as the day Barack Obama sealed his presidential bid when he addressed a rally in Roanoke, a town surrounded by some of the most conservative hill country in the United States. Since 1948, Virginia has voted only once for a Democratic president and that was in 1964. But widespread anger and disaffection with Republican rule amid the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression has sparked a surge in support for Mr Obama, even among white, working-class voters who fled the Democratic Party in recent decades.
If Mr Obama's latest personal appearance swung Virginia for him, then the White House is almost certainly his. Long before Mr Obama became a serious contender in Virginia, a young Arab-American decided to take on this Republican stronghold of small farmers and miners, many of whom are of Scots-Irish descent and who believed the Democrats had abandoned them. At 27, Sam Rasoul is the youngest congressional candidate in next month's elections. He hopes to represent the Democratic Party in Virginia's sixth district, which spans urban Roanoke and mostly rural farmland nestled between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains. "We didn't get a lot of attention until only recently when Obama and the national party started extensive interactions in the district. This will help us almost by default," said Mr Rasoul at his campaign headquarters in Roanoke soon after attending the Obama rally. Obama strategists have spoken of creating a new electoral realignment and bringing back into the Democratic fold the blue-collar base, although Mr Rasoul said it is enough to win a majority of "50 plus one". Mr Obama has repeatedly been obliged to assert his Christian faith in the face of claims he is Muslim. Mr Rasoul, however, is a Muslim and takes pride in his background as the US-born child of Palestinian parents. He presents his story as the latest incarnation of the American dream and said he has suffered little racism or bigotry. His parents fled the occupied territories as refugees after the 1967 war. Like them, Mr Rasoul became a small-business owner and now owns a shopping mall. He said this experience led him to decide in 2006 to "help the forgotten middle class" by standing against Robert Goodlatte, who has been the district's Republican representative for 16 years, unchallenged for the past decade. If elected, Mr Rasoul has vowed to swear on a copy of the US Constitution, not the Quran. Conventional wisdom has Mr Rasoul facing a very tough battle before that happens. Some polls show the Democrats could win up to twice as many seats as was anticipated just two weeks ago. All 435 House seats are up for grabs, and the Democrats hope to expand their current 235-199 majority. (There is one vacant seat.) The party could be poised also to win a 60-seat majority in the 100-member Senate for the first time in 30 years. Mr Rasoul appeared exhilarated by the national attention focused on Virginia, but also a little bemused. He sat in the VIP section at the Obama rally but did not meet the presidential candidate, saying he did not want to "push myself forward". He was also outspoken about not wanting to make promises that he could not keep and asserted his independence from the national Democratic leadership. "I'm very proud. I don't take money from lobbyists or the party itself, only from individuals," he said. "Even if the party offered me money, I wouldn't take it." He pointed to a leaflet being distributed by the national Democratic campaign in Virginia, showing pictures of Mr Rasoul, Mr Obama and Mark Warner, the former governor, who is running for Senate. One of the Democratic pledges includes lowering gas prices, which he said he had never made. "My business approach has distanced me from a lot of typical politicians in that I don't make a bunch of promises I can't keep," he said. "I tell people we're not going to have a lot of money to invest in, for example, rail and that can be hard for people to swallow." His stance on foreign policy, including Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, differs little from Mr Obama, who promises a US troop withdrawal and a two-state solution. Mr Rasoul used the Obama rally to shake the hands of at least 1,000 local supporters in the hope they would spread the word about him. His hand was temporarily crippled by pain as a result but he said "that's the price you pay". He had rushed back to his campaign headquarters after the rally because Mr Obama's advance planners had scheduled a possible step-in at the hairdresser's next door. When Mr Rasoul entered the salon to check on preparations, the handful of stylists and clients inside turned sharply to the door. "You thought it was someone else, but it's only me," he announced. The handful of people inside cheered nonetheless. One man shouted: "You are the big gun!" Laverne Tiggle, a retired African-American educator, said: "It would be beautiful to turn Virginia [Democratic] blue." "It went light blue two days ago," Mr Rasoul replied, referring to opinion polls showing Mr Obama had gained a double-digit lead in the state. After Mr Obama failed to turn up, Mr Rasoul went to the Central Market, and as he introduced himself to passers-by, he said: "Everyone is so polite, sometimes annoyingly so. People don't like to tell me if they're not going to vote for me, but I like to find out who are the independents so I can try to persuade them." He said he and his wife, Layaly, had knocked on thousands of doors across his district. He said his campaign, which had raised about $250,000 (Dh920,000) from individual donations, chose to use TV, radio and press advertisements only sparingly but has achieved a high rate of name recognition thanks to his personal canvassing. If people believe the Democrats are headed towards overwhelming victory, Mr Rasoul could face the challenge of split ballots. Sometimes voters opt for one person as president but choose a candidate from the opposite party for the House or Senate. But Mr Rasoul seemed quietly confident even if it was just a politician's guise. "Our burden begins after November 4," he said. "We can't let special interests take over. The average guy wants us to put our partisan caps aside to get done what's got to be done." firstname.lastname@example.org