ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- A pair of new polls show that President Barack Obama's lead over Mitt Romney is solidifying in Virginia, but political scientists say the president shouldn't take that to the bank.
And voters shouldn't count on either candidate letting up on Virginia before Election Day.
Campaigning "is already at an unprecedented level, and I think it will just continue at this level," said Costas Panagopoulos, director of the Center for Electoral Politics at Fordham University.
"You don't take a swing state for granted this early," he said. Obama operatives are "going to keep on doing what they're doing and they won't let up."
Neither will Mr. Romney, who remains in striking distance, political scientists predict.
"I would be shocked if the Romney campaign pulled back at all here ... and it would be a foolish move" for Mr. Obama to do so," said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia. "No Democrat should feel that he is comfortable running statewide here."
Mr. Obama is ahead in Virginia 50 percent to 46 percent among likely voters, according to a Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll released Wednesday. A Washington Post poll gave Mr. Obama an even bigger edge, 52-44.
The state is Mr. Obama's to lose, said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn.
"It's the fourth quarter of the football game and he's got the ball. He doesn't need to score again; he just needs to make sure the other guy doesn't score," Mr. Brown said Wednesday.
Political scientists say that to reclaim the state, Mr. Romney will need to switch up his strategy, which -- despite intense advertising and on-the-ground campaigning -- hasn't gained traction in Virginia, a dependably red state until Mr. Obama came on the scene in 2008.
Mr. Romney won't change his message or his strategy, said Curt Cashour, the campaign's communications director for Virginia.
"He's going to continue to do what he's been doing, which is talking about jobs, talking about the economy, talking about rolling back the regulations that are decimating the coal industry, and talking about reversing President Obama's ban on off-short drilling," Mr. Cashour said. "These are the issues people in Virginia care about and when it comes down to it, President Obama is on the wrong side of all that."
To really gain ground here, some say, Mr. Romney also needs to appeal to veterans, members of the military and civilian forces whose work supports the Department of Defense.
"He's squandered one of the biggest structural advantages that Republicans normally have in a state like Virginia. He set a tone when he made no mention of the wars or terrorism or the military" during his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention," said Virginia Tech political scientist Craig Brians. "Mitt Romney had an opening."
He also needs to be more specific about his plans and policies, said John Johannes, a professor of political science at Villanova University.
"The questions," Mr. Johannes said, "are whether doing so would positively enthuse those undecided voters or turn them off, and how a list of specifics that seem to be very pro-business will affect those black voters whose turnout is crucial for Obama."
Nationally, Mr. Romney's strategy has been to turn the election into a referendum on the president's handling of the economy, but that doesn't work well in Virginia, where the unemployment rate is 2 percentage points lower than the nation's unemployment rate of 8.3 percent.
"The Virginia economy is good, very good," said Mr. Brown, the Quinnipiac pollster. That's not helpful to Mr. Romney, who faces a similar problem in Ohio, another swing state, where the unemployment rate is 7.2 percent.
"The election is about the economy and sometimes it's as important to be lucky as it is to be good. It happens that two very important states are doing abnormally well in a country where the economy isn't so good," Mr. Brown said. "Whether Obama deserves credit for that better economy in Ohio and Virginia is irrelevant. He's obviously receiving benefits from it."
Mr. Romney shouldn't avoid talking to Virginians about the economy, but he needs to steer the conversation in a different direction, said Mr. Rozell.
"He should be emphasizing that it's a Republican administration in Virginia that enacted the kinds of policies at the state level -- the kinds of policies he envisions at the federal level," Mr. Rozell said.
"Virginia enjoys a budget surplus, lower unemployment and stronger economic growth than most of the rest of the country, so he has to make the case that it's Republican policies at the state level that are making the difference."
Although he has no foreign policy experience, defense is a safer subject for Mr. Romney than reproductive rights. He can't win on that point in Virginia where residents, and women in particular, are galvanized around a recent debate in the state Legislature over a Republican bill that would have required invasive ultrasounds before abortions, said political scientist Robert Roberts of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.
"The Republicans greatly misjudged the impact that would have on women voters," he said. The effect was made worse when the Republican National Convention added a platform plank to outlaw abortion even in cases of rape or incest, he said.
"A lot of women are just not happy with Republicans and they're not inclined to vote for them right now," Mr. Roberts said.
Results of the Quinnipiac poll bear that out, with 52 percent of women saying they'd vote for Mr. Obama compared to 42 percent for Mr. Romney. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percent.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, may have a formula that works in Virginia, but he would be ill advised to plunk that same strategy down in other swing states, political scientists said.
His Virginia strategy works when the population is wealthier and more educated than average and includes a large number of minorities and young voters, said Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia. In other swing states, the focus needs to be on union workers (Ohio) and Hispanics (Nevada and Colorado).
Presidential elections are won state by state, he said.
"What works in Virginia is not going to work in Ohio or Pennsylvania or Colorado," he said.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com or 703-996-9292. First Published September 20, 2012 4:00 AM