NORFOLK, Va. -- Hazel Bland Thomas went to a rally a few weeks ago and learned something new: GOTV.

It's political parlance for "get out the vote," the final, crucial stage of any election strategy during which campaigns scramble to get their voters to the polls. Back in the District, where Thomas lives, GOTV is not a big deal. Nearly everyone is a Democrat so general elections are rarely competitive.

But the story is different across the Potomac in Virginia, where a fierce political ground war is underway, and the winner of the presidential race is very much in doubt. GOTV took on new meaning for Thomas: "Go to Virginia." The chance to win a toss-up state like Virginia has drawn political volunteers like Thomas from the District and Maryland -- where the presidential contest has already been decided and where they're unlikely to make as much of a difference.

"The ground troops can make the difference" in Virginia, said Thomas. "I decided I had to go to Virginia to be one of the ground troops."

Tory Ruttenberg, a consultant from the District, was working in Norfolk over the weekend to help President Obama beat back a challenge from Republican Mitt Romney. Obama won 71 percent of the vote in this Democratic stronghold in 2008, and he has to generate the same kind of excitement this year if he hopes to win a second term.

"This is just an area where there are a lot of Obama supporters, and they just needed people to get out the vote," Ruttenberg said. "It's tight. I feel optimistic, but we have to keep working until the very end."

While the District and Maryland were dispatching mostly Democratic ground troops to Virginia, Romney was shifting Republican resources to the Old Dominion as well, including about 70 Citadel cadets, members of the South Carolina school's Republican Society.

"South Carolina is not tight at all, so it's good to come up to Virginia and be a part of a really tight race where every vote counts," said Hampton Cokely, a cadet and political science major from West Virginia who was working for Romney in Virginia Beach. "Instead of just influencing how big the lead's going to be, you get to see a difference in your work."

The cadets were so focused on knocking on doors late Sunday that they missed -- by design -- Romney's rally in nearby Newport News.

"We're OK with being the behind-the-scenes guys," said group President Robert Seidl, a Bloomington, Ill., native. "The end goal is to have Mitt Romney as the next president of the United States, so going to the rally was secondary to doing all of the behind-the-scenes stuff."

Obama's vaunted ground game caught GOP standard bearer John McCain flat-footed in Virginia four years ago, when Obama became the first Democrat to win Virginia since 1964. However, the state's Republicans say they have significantly improved their own grassroots efforts.

"We have [volunteers] internally in Virginia, but we love any support we can get from the outside," said Pete Snyder, chairman of Virginia Victory 2012. "Virginia has seen supporters from all around the country. The great thing is that we have a terrific backbone, so everything we have is just extra muscle in the game."