FAIRFAX — Perhaps U.S. Sen. Mark Warner put it best: "In 2008, we changed the guard. In 2012, we need to guard the change."
More than 2,000 Democrats from across the commonwealth descended on George Mason University this weekend for the Democratic Party of Virginia's State Convention. The gathering served as part pep rally, part organizational meeting as activists mobilize for November.
Party leaders had similar messages, previewing what they will try to hammer home while Virginia is in the national spotlight as a battleground state for the U.S. presidency. That message, they say, is that the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party has made this country, and this state, unrecognizable and infringes on the rights of gays, women and minorities.
"The degree of extremism, violent language and over-the-top nuttiness in this election might be sharper than it has been in a very long time," said former Gov. Tim Kaine, who is running for U.S. Senate.
Kaine, who headlined Saturday's convention, described what he saw as Virginia GOP attacks on without government interference. He criticized who want to adopt.
"These are battles that the other side has decided to put front and center, and this is what they want to fight about. They're not the battles because Democrats put them on the table," Kaine said.
"They're choosing the most divisive wedge issues that drive people apart when we need to be coming together."
Members of Virginia's congressional delegation each took a shot at the GOP. U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly said government intrusion into women's reproductive health was "not a conservative value" and called it "un-American." U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott chastised national Republican leadership for supporting tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and cuts to health benefits that affect the country's poor and elderly.
"Their priorities are millionaires over Medicare," Scott said.
And U.S. Rep. Jim Moran declared: "We are at war again."
"We are engaged in a conflict of worldviews, the deepest of philosophies, and really the nature of man," Moran said. "The Republican Party of today is ready to impose on us a Darwinian view of the world, turning us into a survival-of-the-fittest society and winner-take-all economy."
The Republican Party of today has "dangerous and radical notions of limited government that even Ronald Reagan wouldn't recognize," Moran said. The party is prepared to implement "a radical redistribution of income" from the poorest among us to the benefit of the wealthiest Americans, he said.
Moran quoted the Gospel of Matthew — "For it is with the least of my brothers and sisters that you will find me" — and added, "That is the heritage of our nation. And it must be the legacy of our political party."
All Eyes on the Old Dominion
Virginia has evolved into a critical battleground state in the 2012 election.
President Barack Obama carried Virginia four years ago — the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since 1964 — and party officials have been kicking themselves ever since as Republicans have made steady gains in state and local elections.
The timing of those gains, though, Democrats like to say, has coincided with the transformation of the GOP at the hands of the tea party movement — and has given voters perhaps the clearest choice they've had in a while.
"You are the front line of Virginia's troops in the battle for the soul of our nation," Moran told the crowd.
Outgoing U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, whom the party honored Friday night, gave a somber, understated farewell speech — recapping his work on the G.I. Bill and criminal justice reform. And ex-Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, ever the showman, touted the Obama administration's successes .
The Democratic Party of Virginia elected two DNC committeewomen — Virginia AFL-CIO President Doris-Crouse Mays from Bedford and political consultant Mame Reiley of Alexandria — and two DNC committeemen.
The race for the latter was hotly contested, and a close vote almost forced the entire crowd to reconvene in a nearby hotel. Staff at GMU's Center for the Arts began clearing the stage while the need for a series of runoff votes emerged as the convention went into overtime.
State party Chairman Brian Moran wrestled with the audience to keep it in order as delegates demanded a final, deciding voice vote — though the matter was ultimately settled when recent Arlington-to-Alexandria transplant Ben Tribbett, the blogger behind Not Larry Sabato, withdrew his name while reserving his right to appeal the outcome of the day's voting.
That left the two committeemen as longtime party volunteer Frank Leone of Arlington, who was reelected to his second term, and Hampton Vice Mayor George E. Wallace. Leone, who won the first round of voting outright, runs the political blog DemRulz.
The state party will send 132 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., this year. Most had already been elected at the congressional district level; about 39 of them were selected Saturday.
"It was just a contentious election," Brian Moran later told Patch. "But it all ended up very well."
Kaine: Don't Give In
Overall, delegates seemed pleased with Saturday's turnout, many taking the time to point out the number of attendees from the Hampton Roads area and the far southwest of the state. Local delegates were glad to see the convention land in Northern Virginia for the first time in recent memory.
"This is one of the most exciting things I've been to," said Mike Signer, an Arlington man expected to announce a bid for state attorney general. "Any time Democrats can get to know each other and get excited, it's good. It's all going to come down to Virginia."
As the convention worked its way into the afternoon and convention-goers got restless, Kaine urged the crowd to stay positive.
The Republican Party is not what it once was, he said, and in the last few years has become full of "doom-and-gloomers, (who are) caustic, always on the attack."
"We're proud of our country. We know our best days are ahead of us. We're not going to give in to the doom and gloom. We're not going to give in to the Super PACs," he said, as the crowd stood for its final ovation. "We are going to be positive and optimistic. We are fighting for important values in 2012. And I'm proud to fight with you. If we fight hard … we will celebrate big victories in America and right here in the commonwealth of Virginia."
Looking ahead: The Republican Party of Virginia's state convention is slated for June 16, though no location is specified on its website.