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A Political Fish Story

Political tradition in Virginia comes down to shad - an oily, bony fish that someone once decided would be just delicious if it were split in two and cooked on wooden planks over an open fire.

In fact, the fish is something of an acquired taste. At least that's what I recently discovered at the annual Shad Planking festival in Wakefield, Virginia, a bucolic little town about 35 miles south of Richmond. This must-do event for state and local political candidates was the first of my many planned stops in six key swing states to report a special feature on over-50 voters for the September issue of the AARP Bulletin.

Plenty of folks obviously like the idea of eating some good food in what amounts to an open-air political gossip and propaganda meet. For $25, you get a plate of shad (or fried whiting), coleslaw, corn muffins, baked beans, sweet pickles and iced tea. The event, which dates to 1949, began as a tribute to the start of the fishing season. But in time Shad Planking became 20 percent fish and 80 percent politics, with Virginians in an informal but spirited competition to sport the highest number of campaign buttons, signs and related paraphernalia.

The event draws an older crowd, and while it's technically bipartisan, Republicans and conservatives overwhelmingly dominated this year's Shad Planking. Many of them sported buttons for Senate GOP candidate George Allen and stickers saying "Guns Save Lives." I skipped the fish but had plenty of time to chat with those in attendance.

Social issues may be important to these Republicans, but the economy seemed top of mind - even more than Social Security and Medicare, which I didn't hear mentioned. Little wonder, perhaps, as the unemployment rate in Sussex County is at 8.6 percent, down from a high of more than 12 percent in 2010 but still considerably above what it is elsewhere in the state.

"The main thing I'm concerned about is jobs, the economy and the national deficit," Ed Early, a 68-year-old lawyer from Charlotte, who wore a "Nobody But Romney" button, told me. And Carl Dozier, 65, worried aloud that the government has reached too far into people's lives, infringing on both personal freedom and business entrepreneurship. "We've been strangling the goose that laid the golden egg," Dozier, who's retired from military service, said.

So how could the Old Dominion, which President Obama won by six percentage points in 2008, still qualify as a battleground state? It's because Virginia is really at least two states, with fast-growing Northern Virginia and its more centrist and left-leaning voters (many of whom work in the nation's capital) on one side and the rural areas that are home to conservatives on the other. And while the state looks lots more red than blue on a county-by-county political map, the GOP counties are much less populous.

A Quinnipiac University survey released in late March gave Obama an eight-point lead over Mitt Romney, the likely GOP nominee, but it's still early - way early - in the game. And if Virginia is still a swing state this fall, it's older voters - as we've seen in contest after contest this year - who can tip it either way. - Susan Milligan

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