WHEN Senator Barack Obama came to Richmond four years ago, Rio Bridges dropped everything.
Then 25, he queued for four hours in the cold to claim one of 13,000 spots in the city's Coliseum. "It felt like you just couldn't miss it," Mr Bridges said. "We were making history".
While another 6,000 shivered outside, Mr Obama entered the amphitheatre to an ear-splitting roar. As flashbulbs popped and teenagers screamed, he declared: "You and I -- together -- will change this country and change this world." To Mr Bridges, "there was electricity in the building. I'll never forget it."
Yet this 29-year-old music producer will not be among the crowds when Mr Obama returns to the city of 200,000 people, 110 miles south of the White House, to launch his re-election campaign this morning. "I'm kinda busy," he said.
As the political rock star of 2008 begins touring his difficult second album, many of the fans who made him Virginia's first Democratic choice for president in 44 years -- by a seven-point margin -- seem similarly lukewarm about a candidate who concedes he is "a little greyer now".
This time, Mr Obama will address a crowd half as big, in a "multi-purpose indoor facility" that next week hosts a graduation ceremony for a school for social workers. His wife, Michelle, whose approval ratings outstrip his own, will be there to lend extra glamour.
Republicans are ready to pounce. Alongside the perennially tight battlegrounds of Florida and Ohio, Virginia has taken on an outsized importance in the campaign. Its 13 electoral college votes could end up deciding whether Mr Obama is returned to the White House or evicted by Mitt Romney, his presumed Republican challenger.
Mr Obama leads the former Massachusetts governor here by 3.2pc. But conservatives are bullish about closing this gap. The reason is the same as everywhere else: America's economic pain has barely relented for more than 40 months.
"Obama spoke a good game on the economy and then made healthcare reform his number one priority. It's been a disaster," said Pete Snyder, a Republican campaign chairman.
Mr Obama has little choice but to tell American voters that things could be worse. "We've spent the last three-and-a-half years cleaning up after other folks' messes," he told a fund-raiser last week.
The president's salvation may be that Mr Romney, driven hard to the right on social issues by his primary opponents, faces yawning deficits among women, young people and Hispanics. (© Daily Telegraph, London)