Presidential candidates don't typically leave their conventions with any intention of stopping by Virginia, a reliably red stronghold since the 1950s.

But Virginia, already the backdrop of many of this election's pivotal moments, will be a focal point of President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney as the sprint toward Nov. 6 begins in earnest.

"It's the biggest role Virginia has ever played in a presidential election in modern history," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "It's obvious that not only is Virginia part of the calculus, in 2008, the results there were closer to Obama's total nationwide than any other state. So if you're looking for the microcosm of America, judging by 2008, it's Virginia."

Obama captured Virginia with 52.6 percent of the vote in 2008, nearly identical to the 52.9 percent he pulled in nationwide. But the state has since trended toward Republicans, electing Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009, and a tepid economic recovery and dwindling enthusiasm among young and black voters have made this a clear battleground in 2012.

Obama was in Norfolk last week as the Democratic convention started, and Romney stopped by Virginia Beach and Richmond on Saturday. Both candidates, plus their running mates, will be here frequently in the coming weeks, their campaigns said.

In all, Obama has spent six days campaigning in the Old Dominion, in addition to official White House trips, and Romney has visited eight times since June 2011. In May, Romney delivered the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg -- his largest in-person audience to date -- in a grandiose appeal to evangelical voters. The presidential hopeful picked a Norfolk military base to introduce running mate Rep. Paul Ryan last month to thousands of enthusiastic supporters.

Virginia is also where President Obama made his now-infamous "you didn't build that" remarks. Republicans have seized on that soundbite from a Roanoke speech and construed it into a campaign message and theme for their convention. In Southwest Virginia, Vice President Biden told a racially mixed crowd that Romney would "put y'all back in chains," which Republicans decried as race baiting.

Romney has diversified his message in Virginia depending on the region. Slamming Obama for the economy in Northern Virginia, where unemployment is under 5 percent, isn't as effective as in the Southwest, where nearly one of every ten residents is out of work.

Inside the Beltway, Romney has instead focused on looming reductions in military spending, while pushing energy issues in Hampton Roads and out West.

"Whether it's the president's devastating defense cuts, opposition to bipartisan proposals for offshore drilling in the commonwealth or his war on coal, President Obama is on the wrong side of the issues Virginians care about the most," spokesman Curt Cashour said.

Obama has countered with rallies on college campuses to invigorate young voters and by sending Biden to blue-collar regions, where his appeal is stronger. Romney could also lose votes from Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode, a potential wild card who has roots in conservative circles from his days as a Virginia congressman.

"Campaigns are won with a strong grassroots support in neighborhoods and living rooms," Obama spokeswoman Caroline Behringer said. "And that's where our focus will continue to be for the final two months of this election."