RICHMOND, VA — They know things about presidents, the people of Virginia.
They gave birth to eight of them — more than any other state — including four of the starting five. They even hosted a rebel president — Jefferson Davis's Confederate White House was in Richmond.
They also know racial politics. The state that served as the capital of the confederacy, which saw its rolling countryside scarred by Civil War battles, went on more than a century later to elect the nation's first black governor, Doug Wilder in 1989.
Tuesday, all that history comes together when Virginia holds the next big presidential primary.
The main event is the Democratic clash between Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, locked in a close contest nationwide for their party nomination. Obama has the edge to win the bigger share of the state's 85 delegates, according to polls.
On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain is heavily favored to win the state's 65 delegates over his last remaining challenger, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
But on both sides, candidates are finding a state far different from the history books.
"It's not the Virginia you remember," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
"It's transitional. You can go to certain parts of the state and think you're in the deep South. And you can go to parts and think you're in the suburbs of Boston."
Once solidly Republican at the presidential level — it hasn't gone for a Democrat in the fall since 1964 — it's now a battleground at the state level with widely different audiences that make it harder to define politically.
Obama looks for a big boost from the state's African-American voters in the Hampton Roads, Richmond, the Washington suburbs as well as some rural black counties along the border with North Carolina.
They could make up as much as 25 percent to 30 percent of the vote Tuesday, according to pollster Brad Coker.
"I don't see his color, I see what he stands for," said Aldenette Griffin, a housing worker from Richmond who stood outside a party dinner Saturday just to show her support for Obama.
"He can bring together people who wouldn't be together otherwise."
Obama also appeals to upscale whites in the state's suburbs, and college students in towns like Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia.
"He brings such a fresh approach to problem solving, much less partisan," said Glen Besa, an organizer for an environmental group from Chesterfield County just outside Richmond. "And I'm not fond of royalty or dynasties, Bushes OR Clintons."
Clinton is looking for strong support from rural Southwest Virginia and from professional women, particularly in the Washington suburbs.
"We've known her a lot longer than Obama," said Hannah Grausz, a doctor from Fairfax, Virginia. "She's been an advocate of health care for a long time. And I have to admit, there's something positive about having a woman in the White House."
"It's her intelligence," said Hazel Rigby, a retired high school teacher from Alexandria, Virginia. "And familiarity. We lived through eight years of her and Bill and we thought that was wonderful."
The growing Virginia suburbs of Washington "will be very interesting," said Sabato.
"They don't participate in governor contests. They're Washington oriented. They don't think of themselves as belonging to Richmond. Northern Virginia is going to be schizophrenic. Women activists, who dominate the party in northern Virginia, are mainly with Clinton. High income, highly educated men will vote for Obama."
The Republican contest is less watched since McCain became the presumptive nominee. But it also offers the two candidates a diverse landscape to navigate.
Navy veteran McCain appeals to military families in the Hampton Roads, where the Atlantic Fleet is based, as well as in the Washington suburbs where Pentagon workers live.
"McCain will carry the military vote and northern Virginia pretty handily," said Coker, whose Mason-Dixon poll for several Virginia newspapers Sunday showed McCain leading Huckabee statewide by 55-27.
McCain's strongest support was in those Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, where he had 69 percent. His weakest was in the southern and western parts of the state, where he and Huckabee each had 42 percent. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Huckabee's likeliest support was from conservatives and evangelical voters in Southwest Virginia.
However, Coker, added, "the rural evangelical vote isn't enough to offset the military vote."
Ultimately, the primary is one thing, the general election another.
Democrats won the last two governor's races. They also took Republican George Allen's U.S. Senate seat last year. And they think they've got a shot at carrying the state in November.
"It's never been like this," said Doug Wilder, who in 1989 became the nation's first elected black governor and said he thinks the state will be in play this fall.
Perhaps. But Virginia tends to elect moderate Democrats, more to the right of Clinton or Obama. Should one of them win Virginia in the fall, then the state truly would have changed.