BRISTOW, Va. — Barack Obama kicked off his general election campaign Thursday in Virginia, a once-reliably Republican state in presidential elections that's changing fast and could be a battleground this fall.
Obama closed the day with a big rally in the Washington, D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia. "The American people are ready for change and that's why I stand before you as the Democratic nominee," Obama told a crowd estimated at 10,000. He praised his former rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and said their contest wouldn't leave the party divided.
Obama was joined by top Virginia Democrats, including Gov. Tim Kaine and freshman Sen. Jim Webb, a war veteran, former Navy secretary under Ronald Reagan and centrist Democrat . Both are widely believed to be under consideration as potential running mates.
Obama also said that Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, had called to congratulate him and that they'd joked that if anyone had asked the pundits a year ago who would be the nominee, it would have been neither of them.
They promised to keep the campaign focused on their differences of vision, not to let it get personal. But Obama said while McCain had a legitimate record of independence from his party, none of it had been on display in the campaign so far.
"John McCain has offered essentially four more years of the same," Obama said. "He says he's about change, too. Everybody's about change these days. But you know what, it's not about change when you vote with George W. Bush 95 percent of the time."
However, he added gently: "John McCain and I are both Americans." Democrat or Republican, he said, "we all love our children and we all love this country."
Earlier, in choosing for his opening Virginia event a high school in Bristol, an Appalachian town beside the Tennessee border, Obama signaled that he'll compete for white working-class voters, who didn't support him during the primary season and threaten to cross party lines to vote for Republican John McCain.
"Southwest Virginia is an example of so much that is good about this country, but so many people have been forgotten," Obama told the mixed race crowd at Virginia High School. "Washington hasn't been listening to you and hasn't been paying attention to you, and I'm here to let you know that I'm going to be listening."
Still, the most poignant moment of the Bristol event turned on race.
It came during a question-and-answer session, when a woman stood and introduced her father, Charles Edwards, 95, a black man whom she said had been waiting all his life for something like Obama's ascendancy.
As the men shook hands, Obama was presented with a tall walking stick that Edwards had carved from maple about a year ago.
"This is a beautiful stick. I really like this, it's beautiful," said Obama, who seemed moved by the gift. Then he cracked a smile. "If members of Congress don't pass my health care bill," he joked, shaking the stick. "I'll whoop em! That's right. I'll have that stick!"
Virginia has gone Republican in every presidential election since 1964, but Obama has big hopes of taking it this fall. The sources of his optimism are:
At the evening rally, Webb called Obama "a man of great intellect who over the past 16 months has impressed us all" and predicted that he would win Virginia and be the next president.
Obama said that Webb had quickly become an "indispensable" voice in the Senate for change. "If you're in a fight — and we're going to be in a fight — you want Jim Webb to have your back," he said.
One of the state's more insightful political analysts, albeit a Republican one — U.S. Rep. Tom Davis — said Wednesday that the state still likely remains out of reach to Democrats at the presidential level.
Obama is too liberal on social issues for the right-of-center state, Davis said at a breakfast with Washington reporters this week.
"It is still a steep road for him at this point to carry Virginia or probably any Southern state, given the fact that he tends to be a more cultural than economic-oriented candidate," Davis said.
Also, he said, McCain will have two edges in the state that some other Republicans have lacked: One, he's a Navy man, and that will appeal in the Hampton Roads area filled with Navy veterans. Two, he's often challenged his own party, which could appeal to independent-minded voters, especially in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, Davis said.
Earlier, the Bristol crowd received Obama enthusiastically, but some whites in the audience looked warily toward November. John Clark, a local resident who had backed former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in the Democratic primary, said he supports Obama now, but he's concerned that others won't.
"I just don't think he has the appeal to the blue-collar, working class," Clark said.
Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a beloved state leader now running for the Senate, endorsed Obama in Bristol and implored the audience to "take the time to get to know this man" and to remember where Obama chose to start his general election bid.
"This is a good man," Warner said. "This is a man of deep faith. This is a man who has spent his lifetime bringing people together."
(Steven Thomma contributed to this report.)