By Patricia Zengerle
FAIRFAX, Virginia (Reuters) - Virginia is a key battleground in the race between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, and home to one of the nation's hottest Senate campaigns, featuring two former governors.
But one of the most important figures in the 2012 election in Virginia is not even on the ballot.
He is the current governor, Republican Bob McDonnell, whose efforts to move the party to the right in the politically divided state - most notably by restricting abortions - have energized conservative Christians, alienated other voters and made Virginia a focal point in what Democrats call a "war on women" by Republicans.
McDonnell's push has become an intriguing backdrop in a crucial state in the tight races for the White House and control of the U.S. Senate in the November 6 election.
A big question is whether Virginia's increasingly conservative government will help carry Romney and Republican Senate candidate George Allen to victory there, or create a backlash that could help Obama and Tim Kaine, the Democratic nominee for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Jim Webb.
McDonnell won the statehouse three years ago as a fiscal conservative, without emphasizing ideology. Republicans also made huge gains in the 2010 and 2011 elections in Virginia, and now control every major statewide office and both houses of the Legislature.
McDonnell and his fellow Republicans have governed with a strong tilt toward religious conservatism, most famously by pushing for a law that would have forced women to undergo invasive vaginal ultrasounds in order to obtain an abortion.
The Legislature eventually backed off, and in April passed a version of the law that mandated a less invasive procedure.
But the effort drew national attention - and mockery from late-night television hosts - that dimmed McDonnell's image as a pragmatist and tamped down speculation he might be chosen as Romney's vice presidential running mate.
Also moving the Virginia Republican Party to the right has been the state's attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, who has pushed hard for anti-abortion measures, skeptically challenged scientists over climate change and advised public universities that they cannot bar discrimination against homosexuals.
The rightward tilt of Virginia's government has energized the Republican base - particularly white evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly support Romney and Allen.
Less than three weeks before the election, polls show both Republican candidates trailing, but well within striking distance of their Democratic foes.
The RealClearPolitics.com average of polls shows Obama ahead of Romney in Virginia by just 0.8 point in the presidential race. Kaine leads Allen by 2.2 points in the former governor's battle for the Senate seat.
A crucial battleground within the state is the wealthy, vote-rich suburbs of northern Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington.
The area is home to many independent voters and moderate Republicans who have been targeted by Obama and Kaine partly on the theory that such voters might be dismayed by McDonnell and other Republicans running the state.
"For many swing voters, the Republicans (in Virginia) are perceived as being too far to the right, especially on some hot-button social issues," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
"The transvaginal ultrasound issue played very big here and left some lasting impressions for many voters," he said.
Democrats have tried to keep social issues at the center of the campaign. They contend that some Republicans are waging a "war on women" over contraception and abortion, rather than focusing on improving the economy and creating jobs.
"McDonnell kind of put on this mask when he was running, of 'OK, I'm a regular guy,' but now he's going back to his roots," Democratic activist Susan Platt said. "Ken Cuccinelli is following in his footsteps."
That appeal works with some voters.
Alli Guleria, 48, an orthodontist from Vienna, Virginia, a Washington suburb, said she was deeply concerned about social issues, and supported Kaine partly because of his record working with Democrats and Republicans.
"It's a big deal, a big deal for me," she said. Kaine's idea of 'we've got to work together' should be obvious by now."
Other voters said they were tired of the emphasis on social issues, and that economic issues would decide the election.
"Women are not really concerned about the issues that President Obama keeps bringing up," said Marta Saltus, of Alexandria, Virginia, a Romney supporter.
Virginia was reliably Republican in presidential races for decades until 2008, when Obama won there by 7 percentage points. The state is becoming increasingly urban, and now almost one-third of its voters are black, Hispanic or Asian - groups that typically support Democrats.
Largely protected from the national economic downturn by government-related jobs, northern Virginia has been booming, with an influx of voters who are not as conservative as the rural voters who long dominated the state's politics. The region is home to about one-third of the state's 8 million residents.
"Virginia's demographics are changing," said Jennifer Thompson, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "The independents in northern Virginia are going to turn the state either red or blue."
A DEMOCRATIC FIREWALL?
Allen has largely focused his campaign on economic issues, while trying to paint Kaine, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, as too liberal and too close to Obama.
Allen's campaign accuses Kaine of waging fake "gender wars" to avoid talking about jobs and the economy.
But Virginia's relatively strong economy can make it difficult for Republicans to bash Democrats over jobs and regulation, as they have in other states.
Virginia has a budget surplus, its housing market is relatively strong and its unemployment rate, 5.9 percent in August, the most recent figure available, is well below the national average of 7.8 percent.
"It's a state where no matter what has happened with this election cycle, we found Barack Obama with a healthy lead. At this point, even 3 points is a healthy lead with so little time left," said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling.
A PPP survey last week had Obama leading Romney in Virginia, 50 percent to 47 percent, and Kaine ahead of Allen, 51 percent to 44 percent. Obama had an 8-point advantage among Virginia women, although he trailed among men by 49 percent to 48 percent. Kaine led by 12 points among women, 53 percent to 41 percent. He also led among men, 49 percent to 47 percent, according to PPP.
Kaine has portrayed himself as a moderate throughout the campaign, promising he will work with Republicans. He called the Republican state Legislature's focus on social conservatism a "vivid and horrifying spectacle."
"(Kaine's) basic approach, that 'I'm the nice guy,' helps," said Paul Goldman, a former head of the Democratic Party of Virginia. "Most successful politicians realize that people are not all that comfortable with governing by ideology. They want something practical."
Kaine has stressed the social conservatism of Allen, who is trying to win back the Senate seat he lost to Webb in 2006.
Allen seemed uncomfortable during a debate last week when he was asked about the Republican ultrasound proposal and his support for an effort by the Virginia Legislature to pass "personhood" legislation, which would define life as starting at the moment eggs are fertilized. That would make some common forms of contraception illegal.
"I would never prohibit contraceptives," Allen said. He emphasized that the "personhood" bill could be used to enhance the punishment for someone who attacks a pregnant woman, by establishing rights for the unborn child. Allen then changed the subject by pivoting to the economy.
Kaine shot back that the issues were not separate: "You can't empower women in the economy if you take away their choices."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Peter Cooney)
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