CHESAPEAKE, Va. - The Rev. Isaac McDonald has been feeling anxious for weeks, not over an outbreak of sin or tragedy, but because of the presidential race. And so the pastor of Providence United Church of Christ did what he was called to do: preach.
"Four years ago, the enthusiasm was greater," said McDonald, who devoted a month of sermons to President Obama's re-election. "Four years ago, I didn't preach on Obama ... This year, it's almost like we have to reintroduce him. It's not that people aren't going to vote for him, but it's the enthusiasm in getting out the vote and being a part of the process" that has been worrisome.
Obama won this southside Virginia city with just over 50 percent of the vote in 2008, as he marched to victory throughout the broader Hampton Roads region on his way to becoming the first Democratic presidential contender to win Virginia since 1964.
But polls show Obama in a much tighter race this year against Republican Mitt Romney. And the president needs an enthusiastic turnout among Hampton Roads' sizable African-American population -- the region anchors the state's sole black-majority congressional district -- to counter Romney's 13 percentage point advantage with Hampton Roads' other dominant voting bloc: military families.
"What's left is the ground game. Who can turn out their voters? Who can maximize their guy's chances at the polls through turnout?" said Burns Strider, a Democratic political consultant. "President Obama gets a big push from his organization, and Virginia, in particular, has a tremendous amount of activity."
State Republican Party Chairman Pat Mullins said Romney is counting on wresting Hampton Roads from Obama to offset the president's advantage in Northern Virginia.
"We really are counting on a good, heavy Republican vote down here to counter maybe what would happen in Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax," Mullins said. "This area, with the population down here, if it doesn't go for Romney, we don't have a whole lot of chance of winning the election."
Romney and a host of campaign surrogates have focused much of their attention on Hampton Roads, emphasizing his national security agenda and support for greater defense spending, a crucial issue in a region that is home to the Navy's largest base and the only private shipyard in the nation that can build nuclear aircraft carriers.
Romney couples promises of more Pentagon spending with warnings that defense cuts possible under Obama could devastate an area whose huge military presence has until now largely insulated it from the Great Recession.
"He wins Virginia if we get out our veterans vote," Sen. John McCain, a former Vietnam-era prisoner of war and the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee, told The Washington Examiner after a weekend appearance for Romney. "Generally speaking, they vote a lot, but they're not angry. Now, they're angry."
But former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was appearing on behalf of Obama, said the president would contest Romney's support among military voters, noting that the president launched the mission that killed Osama bin Laden.
"I think that President Obama has done amazing things for our national security," Albright told The Examiner. "Gov. Romney has a very shallow, unclear national security policy. I actually have no idea what it is. To the extent that he speaks on national security, it's basically slogans without any plan."