barack-obama2_web.jpgBRISTOL, Va. (AP) — Barack Obama reveled Thursday in his newfound status as the likely Democratic nominee and signaled that Republicans face a fierce fight over Virginia this fall, a state long-held by the GOP.

“I'm proud of America for giving me this opportunity, but we've still got work to do,” the Illinois senator told a crowd in this southeastern city of about 20,000 on the border with Tennessee.

Obama was holding two events in the Southern state where Democrats sense opportunity this year given several years of the party's inroads fueled by the population-swelling, liberal-to-moderate northern swath of the state.

The last time Democrats won Virginia in a presidential election was 1964 when Lyndon B. Johnson was the nominee. George W. Bush comfortably won the state twice, but he lost the northern part to Democrat John Kerry four years ago. Voters there were critical in helping Democrats retain the governor's mansion in 2005 and seize a GOP-held Senate seat in 2006 that gave Democrats control of Congress.

Two top Democrats whose names also have been mentioned as possible vice presidential candidates — Gov. Tim Kaine and Sen. Jim Webb — as well as Mark Warner, a former governor running for an open Senate seat, were campaigning with Obama at  one of the two events. The second is an outdoor rally in the northern Virginia town of Bristow.

Obama campaigned in Virginia two days after clinching the Democratic nomination, and a day after his fallen rival Hillary Rodham Clinton signaled she would endorse him at an event
on Saturday. He had words of praise for his vanquished foe.

“Obviously, we’ve had a pretty exciting 48 hours. This is on the heels of a 16-month, 54-primary and caucus campaign with outstanding candidates, none more outstanding than Senator
Hillary Rodham Clinton. I congratulate her on her outstanding campaign. I know I'm a better candidate for campaigning against her. She's tough,” Obama said.

He had lengthy words of praise for Warner, who was at the first event, saying: “Mark has provided extraordinary leadership that has achieved extraordinary results. He knows that the challenges we face are not about left versus right or Democrat versus Republican they are about the past versus the future.”

Overall, Obama sounded the part of a general election candidate, referring in his remarks to the choice voters will have “this fall” and talking of “an Obama administration.” He also criticized McCain, primarily over health care, and sought anew to link his GOP rival to the unpopular president.

“Now, I respect John McCain, and I honor his service to this country. My differences with him are not personal; they're about the policies he's proposed on this campaign — policies that are no different than the ones that have failed us for the last eight years,” Obama said.

Obama took a congratulatory call from McCain around 7 p.m. Wednesday night that lasted several minutes, aides to the Democratic candidate said. “They talked about how they wanted to have a cordial campaign going forward,” said Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor.

The Democrat argued that health care premiums have risen faster than wages since Bush took office, and that millions more people in the country are uninsured “yet John McCain actually wants to double down on the failed policies that have done so little to help ordinary Americans.”

“Like George Bush, Senator McCain has a plan that only takes care of the healthy and the wealthy,” Obama said, noting that McCain’s plan doesn't provide for universal health care coverage and arguing that it would drive up costs.

Photo by Khary Bruyning. Sen. Barack Obama