LEESBURG, Va. — There is one last farmer who still lives on Jeff Kayden’s dirt road. When the two neighbors speak of politics, the farmer tells Kayden, a real estate developer and construction entrepreneur, about the days when Loudoun County was quiet and rural — and traditionally, decidedly, proudly Republican.

That was more than a decade ago, before people like Kayden moved out in droves from the older, “inner” suburbs of Washington, D.C., communities that lie within an easy commute of the government agencies and the law firms, lobbying outfits and other enterprises that feed off them. Many were priced out of the housing market in the inner ring. Others were lured by jobs in the technology and telecommunications industries, which boomed in this area west of Washington Dulles International Airport in the 1990s. Kayden, who is 57, ventured out to Loudoun County about a dozen years ago. “I wanted a new home in the country,” he says.

The peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains poke up over the horizon as drivers speed along the highways that lead past the airport and through the subdivisions that have sprouted in fields that a few years ago were planted with vegetables. The newness of the place can startle. No shopping center has an aging storefront. The landscape that surrounds the homes in the developments of tract mansions and townhouses is dotted with trees that aren’t yet near their full height.

People like Kathryn Snead, a nuclear specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency, live in these homes. Even though the round-trip commute to her job is three hours, Snead endures it, she told me, because she couldn’t afford a home closer to downtown Washington.

Snead waited about 25 minutes to cast her early ballot for president last Friday, along with hundreds of her fellow county residents who formed a line that wound up one side of a corridor in the Loudoun County voter registration office and down the other. They were, collectively, the face of change in Virginia that could tip the state into the Democratic column for the first time since the LBJ landslide of 1964.

The change took root here long before Barack Obama’s campaign for “change” targeted the area with advertising, hundreds of campaign field workers and rallies that have attracted thousands and sparked unmistakable energy. Though he went on to become a popular governor and now is poised for a blowout win in his race for U.S. Senate, Democrat Mark Warner lost Loudoun County in his 2001 gubernatorial campaign. But by 2005, when Democrat Tim Kaine ran, a victory in what was by then a transformed county helped lift him into the governor’s mansion. The following year, Jim Webb nudged out Republican Sen. George Allen in Loudoun County by less than a single percentage point, enough in a race that was skintight statewide.

Obama was to end his campaign Monday night with a rally in neighboring Prince William County — his 11th stop in Virginia during the general election campaign.

Registration in Loudoun County increased about 10 percent between January and the Oct. 6 deadline, according to Registrar Judith Brown. By the end of early balloting on Saturday, 21,222 voters — of about 179,000 registered voters in the county — had cast their ballots.

No voter is ever entirely emblematic of the citizenry in any state. But in Loudoun, Kayden may well come close. The politician who seems most responsible for driving him into the early voting line is George W. Bush, whom Kayden calls “the worst president by far in history.” His company developed both commercial and residential property, he told me, but it hasn’t built a house in three years. “You can buy them now for less than it costs to build them,” he says.

Another motivator appears to be Sarah Palin, though not in the way Republican nominee John McCain had hoped. Palin is the reason Marc Willson, an energy consultant, is abandoning his lifelong habit of voting for Republican presidential candidates. He believes McCain is better prepared to lead the military than is Obama, and intended to vote for the Republicans in congressional races. But, Willson said, “I can’t have Sarah Palin one 72-year-old heartbeat away from the presidency.”

As Loudoun County goes, so Virginia is likely to go. In this unlikeliest of presidential contests, the people of Loudoun County — middle class and traditionally middle of the road in their political tastes — are unlikely protagonists in a historic drama.

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

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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