RICHMOND, Va. — To understand the that grips the Democratic Party in Virginia, take note that Hugh Robertson had the audacity to wear his John Edwards button to the party’s big Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner Saturday night.

Though his candidate dropped out of the presidential contest last month, Robertson couldn’t bring himself to remove the Edwards pin from his lapel. So there he stood at a cocktail party, surrounded by other guests (including his wife, who sported a Hillary Clinton sticker) who made their allegiance to either Clinton or Barack Obama abundantly clear.

Robertson is the sort of Democrat that presidential campaigns beg to have in their corner. He is the party leader in a stretch of suburbia that sprawls south from Washington, D.C., and which is defined by its mixed demographics — blue collar, white collar, immigrants, retirees. “It’s those same people that Hillary is trying to get,” Robertson said in describing his neighborhood. “I think Hillary probably will win them, but it’s not enough to win in Virginia.”

Robertson says he will make his own judgment based on his assessment of which candidate will do the most to address growing economic inequality. His decision may not come until he enters the voting booth.

Polling in Virginia in advance of Tuesday’s primaries predicts that Obama is poised to win another convincing victory, besting Clinton in a state where the African-American vote is crucial, where white Democrats tend to be of the upscale, educated variety who have been drawn to his candidacy in droves, and where independents participate.

Such a facile judgment was not so evident among those Democrats who gathered for the unexpected opportunity of seeing both Clinton and Obama at their annual dinner — a raucous, sold-out affair few could have predicted would play such a prominent role in the national presidential sweepstakes. The consensus among a sampling of the hundreds of people who gathered for the cash-bar cocktail party — not the smaller, more elegant affairs where the party’s officeholders and elite donors gathered — is that Democrats are split pretty much down the middle. The arguments for one candidate or the other echo in the stalemate between Obama and Clinton that has been playing out nationwide.

Kamini Pahuja, who heads a plastics company in the Richmond area, supports Clinton in good measure because she, Pahuja, is a professional woman who sees in Clinton’s candidacy an overdue chance for new leadership. “Why a woman? Because women know how to balance,” Pahuja says. Noting that other nations around the world long ago elected women heads of state, she says, “How can we be left behind India and Britain and Israel? Shame on us.”

To Liz Hoefer, a consultant from Alexandria, Obama is a biblical figure. “We have needed to raise up a leader,” Hoefer says. “He’s the Joshua. Moses saw the promised land, Joshua led the children into it.”

The chanting, squealing greeting for Obama when he entered the arena long after Clinton had finished her workmanlike speech was indeed religious in its fervor. Hundreds of young supporters filled the upper-tier seats, many of them having traveled to Richmond from college campuses around the Washington area. Obama’s trademark rhetoric lilted with ease — he’d just run up victories in three states Saturday — and lifted his audience.

Earlier, Clinton had given her own signature performance. When she was elected senator from New York in 2000, she promised her constituents she would be a “workhorse, not a show horse.” She still is, delivering speeches thick on specifics and thin on soaring oratory. Her plodding style has worked so far in her political career. But in Obama she is matched against a sleek thoroughbred who mesmerizes crowds not so much with his track record but with the possibility of excitement to come.

Mary Tycz of Falls Church, Va., replays the arguments for both candidates over and over in her head, still trying to decide on her vote. “I like Hillary’s depth of experience. I like her brain, her intellect. I like that she’s a woman, she’s quick on her feet.” On the other hand, “Obama is inspirational to more people than me — to many people. When he says change, people are buying it.” As for Tycz, she, too, is resigned to making her final choice only when she gets to the polls.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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