FAIRFAX, Va. -- Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney reached out to Northern Virginia's fast-growing Asian-American population during a campaign stop here Thursday as he looks to lure more voters under his party's tent to help him get over the finish line in a state he badly needs to win this November.
Romney invited five women to speak before him, including three Asian-Americans, who represent a population in Virginia that ballooned by 72 percent in the last decade and now make up 6.5 percent of the state's 8 million residents. It's a demographic that Romney is actively courting to offset President Obama's advantage among black and Hispanic voters, and it could help even the score in Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia.
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"This really is a turning point in our community," said Christine Chen, executive director of Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote. "In the past, both parties have been really bad about continuously engaging with our community. We're very loyal. It's about relationship building, especially since our community typically does not see themselves as progressive or conservative, but rather 'Who is running? Do I have a relationship with them?' It's very localized."
There has not been consistent allegiance to a single party among Asians, a diverse swath that includes many nationalities. After voting for Republican presidential candidates in 1992 and 1996, they have since trended toward Democrats. President Obama won in 2008, with 62 percent support from Asian voters.
This year, their votes are likely to have the biggest impact in Virginia and Nevada, Chen said, with Florida and Pennsylvania also on the map.
Republicans are optimistic that they have made inroads into Asian communities, particularly in Fairfax and Prince William counties, and believe Democrats have taken those votes for granted.
After two Asian small-business owners talked about how Obama's economy has hampered them, Romney laid out a vision to bolster middle-class Americans that resonated with a significant Asian showing in an audience of about 3,500 Romney-backers. He briefly mentioned the unrest in the Middle East in light of Tuesday's attacks on American embassies in Libya and Egypt but steered clear of any political comments.
Asian-Americans as a group have not been energized to vote in recent Virginia elections. Just 25 percent of Virginia's Asian citizens voted in 2010, according to census data, far lower than whites and blacks, though better than Hispanics.
"Those communities need to get more active," said Katie Nau, an Annandale accountant originally from Vietnam in attendance Thursday. "They have their homes and communities where they share their beliefs, but they need to get more people out and motivated."
Democrats hope their party's focus on reforming immigration will drive voters to the polls.
"Republicans, their hardline on immigration, their insistence that millionaires get tax breaks at the expense of the middle class, those issues will resonate with the Asian" communities, Democratic Party of Virginia Chairman Brian Moran said outside Romney's event.
If Romney can court Asian voters away from Obama in this battleground, it could keep Obama from running up the score in Fairfax County, where he won in 2008, en route to capturing the state.
"Obama is going to get about 80 percent of voters that are not white," said Kyle Kondik, political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "The extent Romney can hold that down, that matters, especially in states with significant minority populations, like Virginia. History tells us it's hard for Republicans to get African-American voters, even without a black president, but there is some opportunity with Asian voters."