Friday, January 05, 2007

Obama to Headline Big Fundraiser

By Tim Craig for the Washington Post

RICHMOND, Jan. 5 -- U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, a possible presidential candidate next year, will be the featured guest at a major fundraiser for the Virginia Democratic Party next month, his spokesman said Friday.

The Illinois Democrat will speak to 2,000 donors and activists at the party's annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner here.

The first-term senator's participation comes as he considers running for the White House, a prospect generating a lot of buzz among Virginia Democrats, and as national Democratic Party leaders recognize that Virginia has become more competitive, especially in the northern suburbs.

James Webb upset Sen. George Allen (R) in November, and Democrats have won the past two elections for governor. The $165-a-ticket dinner is designed to help the party raise money for its efforts to unseat Republican legislators this fall. The GOP controls both houses of the General Assembly.

Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director, said the senator is eager to help Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and the state party.

"Sen. Obama is an admirer of Gov. Kaine's and believes that Gov. Kaine is somebody who demonstrates that working together to get something done is not just a slogan," Gibbs said.

Because Obama could announce his plans as soon as this month, his speech at the fundraiser at the Richmond Convention Center could prompt a lot of discussion about Virginia's role in the presidential race.

Virginia's Democratic presidential primary has been held relatively early in past elections, before any candidate had the nomination locked up.

In 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, then-Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark spoke at the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, which was held days before the primary.

Kerry easily won the Virginia primary, and Clark and Edwards dropped out of the race shortly thereafter.

If Obama enters the 2008 race and stays in it until the primary Feb. 12, Virginia Democrats say, he will probably be a major factor in the state's nominating contest.

"Barack is an exciting, substantive, inspiring speaker and leader. He has to be at the very top of potential candidates," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Arlington), chairman of his party's caucus in the House.

Democratic leaders are also hopeful that the party's nominee in 2008 will break the GOP's grip on the state's 13 electoral votes. A Democratic presidential nominee hasn't won the state since 1964.

Obama has made several high-profile visits to Virginia in recent months.

Last fall, he headlined two rallies for Webb during his heated contest with Allen. Thousands of people attended the rallies in Old Town Alexandria and Richmond. When Obama finished speaking at each, the crush of admirers and autograph-seekers swarming around him was so large that his staff had trouble clearing a path for him to his car.

Obama also campaigned for Kaine during the final days of the 2005 governor's race, which helped energize black voters.

Other potential Democratic presidential candidates were also visible in the state on behalf of Webb. Kerry, Edwards and Clark made appearances, as did New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom many Democrats regard as the front-runner for the nomination if she enters the race.

But many Democratic organizations and candidates across the country have come to rely on Obama to draw a crowd.

Obama headlined the West Virginia Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in September. Party leaders said Obama's presence made the dinner the most well-attended in its history, according to local media accounts.

Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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