FAIRFAX, Va. — Four years ago, Rebecca Liechty helped flip Virginia for Barack Obama, ending decades of Republican dominance in the state.
On Thursday, Liechty stood in a sun-splashed playground here with her children, listening to an urgent appeal from Mitt Romney. "Northern Virginia could well determine who the next president is," he said, "and I hope you make that decision to get me elected."
Liechty, a 36-year-old Republican, still prefers Obama's views on social issues, but she sees something more important in Romney. "The economy is driving me to him," she said, explaining that while her husband has an "awesome" job as a tax accountant, her friends are struggling.
Virginia has surged as one of the hottest battleground states in the presidential election, as fiercely fought as Florida, Ohio and other traditional swing states. It could decide the presidency and also the control of the U.S. Senate, with Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen locked in an equally close contest.
Romney traveled to the heart of the battleground Thursday, the rapidly growing and diversifying suburbs of Washington, D.C., that were vital to Obama's victory in 2008. Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana were among the reliably Republican states that Obama's unprecedented grass roots campaign pushed onto the playing field.
"For 40 years, we were bypassed," said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor. Now the campaign is inescapable. "There's both a sense of excitement and revulsion."
Excitement because of the attention both tickets are lavishing on the state. Revulsion because of the multimillion dollar avalanche of attack ads that come with them, along with scores of campaign workers going door-to-door and making rapid-fire phone calls.
Rarely a day goes by without visits from one of the candidates, their running mates or high-profile surrogates. A few weeks ago, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi dropped in for a "Women for Mitt" event. Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, will be in Harrisonburg today. First lady Michelle Obama, meanwhile, led a rally in Richmond on Thursday.
"If we win Virginia, we will be well on our way to putting Barack Obama back in the White House for four more years," she said. "Right here, you all have the power to do that. So that means from now until November — all right, marching orders — we need every single one of you to work like you've never worked before."
A day after attacking Obama's response to the attacks in Libya, Romney steered clear of overt criticism while calling for a stronger military. He asked for a moment of silence for the fallen Americans but that was scuttled by a heckler who kept shouting that Romney had politicized the situation in Libya. The crowd drowned him out with shouts of "USA."
Romney pivoted back to his core message about the economy, assuming the issue is as potent in a state with unemployment about 2 percentage points lower than the national average.
Behind Romney stood rows of women, underscoring how critical that demographic is to the outcome in November. In 2008, Virginia women favored Obama by 7 percentage points. Democrats are pushing the line of attack that Republicans are hostile to women's health issue, seeking to capitalize on a controversial new state law requiring an ultrasound exam before an abortion.
Virginia's demographics began to shift in the 1990s, fueled by an expansion of skilled jobs, an expanding federal government that provided high salaries and steady growth of Hispanics and Asians.
Appealing to the increasingly diverse population, along with college students, African-Americans and women, Obama became the first Democrat to win the state since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. John McCain saw Virginia slipping away, but his reaction was too late.
"We knew that we couldn't run that same risk," said Rick Wiley, political director of the Republican National Committee, which along with Romney's campaign has poured an unprecedented level of resources into the state.
Door knocking is up 14 times what it was in 2008, he said, phone calls 20 times. The campaign is also making efforts to court white evangelical voters.
Republicans concede the race is a toss-up — a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday showed Obama leading 49-44 — but feel bullish about a Republican resurgence. A year after Obama's win, Bob McDonnell won the race for governor and in 2010, three Democratic incumbents lost seats in Congress.
"The pendulum is starting to swing the other way," said Ed Sivick, a 47-year-old mechanical engineer who attended the Romney rally.
A presidential race is different, of course, and Obama got a head start organizing in the state. He has to ensure his Democratic base turns out, a problem in those recent state elections, and cannot afford to lose support among independents.
"The numbers are still there, but not unlike the rest of the country, Virginians are saying 'We like Obama, but did he turn the country around fast enough?' " said Steven Jarding, a former Democratic consultant in Virginia who lectures at Harvard University. "If this is a referendum on Obama's performance, as Romney wants it, then I suspect Romney wins it."
But Romney's choice of Ryan, architect of an austere budget proposal, as his running mate changes the dynamic, he added. "People may ask, 'What's with this Ryan guy? Is he really going to get rid of Medicare? Is he really going to cut government by 25 percent?' "
Northern Virginia is heavily dependent on the federal government for jobs, either directly or through defense contracts, and even in a fired-up crowd in Fairfax, there was a less than hearty response when Romney talked about slashing the government.
At the same time, Romney tried to appeal to those jobs by warning about automatic defense budget cuts, agreed to by Democrats and Republicans, that could come if lawmakers do not reach a deal on the deficit.
"I'm counting on you, Virginia," Romney concluded his speech. "We have to win this. Find someone who voted for Barack Obama, get them to join our team."