Abortion could tip US election outcome in Virginia
SPRINGFIELD, Virginia - As is the case across the United States, the economy is the dominant concern for voters in Virginia, but here abortion is such a hot issue that it could tip the balance on election day.
Capturing the mid-Atlantic state is a top priority for both President Barack Obama and his rival Mitt Romney, given that the incumbent won it in 2008 after almost 50 years of Republican dominance in the White House stakes.
But Virginia is a flashpoint in America's heated abortion debate, after the Republican-controlled state legislature made it mandatory earlier this year for women seeking an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound examination.
"Abortion is a very big issue, but I think the economy is the biggest issue," gym teacher Gay Shelby told AFP at a Republican rally in Springfield with a "Mitt Romney for president" placard in his hand.
The struggle for the hearts, minds and ballots of each and every voter is "so close, it can go either way," he added.
Stretching from button-down Washington to the Deep South, Virginia is among a dozen or so swing states whose electoral college votes will determine the outcome of the November 6 vote.
It did, however, side with Obama's Democrats in 2008, before giving the Republicans the majority of its seats in Congress two years later. Republicans also control the state legislature.
To lose Virginia would be a black eye for Romney, who has come to the state 11 times so far in the campaign, against Obama's even heavier 16 appearances.
Abortion has been a highly emotional topic in Virginia, with the pro-choice camp accusing pro-lifers of waging what they call "a war on women."
Romney once supported abortion, but is now opposed in cases not involving rape or incest. His running mate Paul Ryan is more emphatic -- he rejects abortion for any reason.
Virginia has come to the forefront of the debate thanks to a number of laws and regulations on the state level which, critics say, are intended to make it harder to get an abortion.
One such law, requiring abortion seekers to undergo an ultrasound, has been branded humiliating and useless by its critics, while earning Governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican, the nickname "Governor Ultrasound."
"The Republicans and the governor and the State House are chipping away at women's access to abortion in Virginia," said Carol Adams, a tour guide who lives in Alexandria, a prosperous Virginia suburb close to Washington.
"It's important to me because I want to preserve abortion rights," which have been upheld by the Supreme Court, she said.
University of Virginia political analyst Geoffrey Skelley said that "while abortion is not a key issue in this election, abortion within the context of women's rights seems to be a relatively important issue in Virginia."
"The economy is the number one issue everywhere, but due to recent events in Virginia politics, abortion and other related issues -- such as access to birth control -- are playing a role," he added.
"They are one reason why Obama has around a 10 percent lead among women over Mitt Romney in Virginia."
NARAL Pro-Choice America has launched a voter registration drive in Virginia in a bid to get as many pro-choice supporters to the ballot box on election day.
"We are targeting historically under-represented women -- racial minorities, single mothers and low-income women -- in order to make sure that women's voices are heard on November 6," said NARAL activist Alena Yarmosky.
On the other side of the argument, the political action group Women Speak Out has earmarked $500,000 for television ads in three states, including Virginia, to denounce what it calls Obama's "extreme abortion record."
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