Republican presidential hopefuls, from L to R, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum participate in the South Carolina Presidential Debate at Wofford College.
For those of us living in the Beltway, there's been no bigger gift to the world of politics than the shift of Virginia into the political battleground.
For most of my lifetime, Virginia was only a competitive state between the two parties on the statewide level, both on the governor and Senate levels. But thanks to the growth of the D.C. suburbs coupled with the overall migration of northerners into the state, it's a full-fledged battleground, with pockets of all kinds of voting demographic groups.
And as the campaign year wears on, I'll dig deeper into these important groups to follow, from high-tech workers to African-Americans, to government workers to military families. But Virginians don't have to wait until November to have an impact on the presidential race.
A couple of dates to circle on your calendar. The most intriguing is later this month, Dec. 22. It's the day we'll find out for sure whether the new Republican presidential frontrunner has a decent organization.
Qualifying for Virginia's March 6, 2012, primary ballot isn't as easy as most states. A candidate must collect 10,000 signatures, including 400 from each of the state's congressional districts. They must be registered voters. Virginia doesn't register by party, but by signing the petition, the voter is signifying they intend to participate in the primary.
It's such an onerous task to get on the Virginia ballot that, for instance, in 2007, Hillary Clinton's campaign hired an outside consulting firm to do it. Barack Obama was among the first campaigns to use an all-volunteer signature gathering force.
Gingrich has a skeleton operation -- that we know. And there's evidence the campaign team is growing in smarter and more nimble ways. But if Gingrich fails to qualify, it's going to feed a narrative Mitt Romney's campaign is trying to create -- that Gingrich, while a great idea guy, can't manage the government. And if you can't do the little things while running for president, how can you handle managing the country day-to-day?
Now, assuming Gingrich does get on the ballot, it could mean that Virginia's March 6 primary will be the most important (and competitive) primary on that day, which is "Super Tuesday."
Neither Gingrich nor Romney start with an advantage over the other. And who else is still in the race (read: Ron Paul) will matter. I could see Gingrich showing strength with the state's evangelical voters, while Romney might do well in the D.C. and Richmond suburbs (many federal workers won't be Newt fans).
The key swing vote could be military veterans. Neither GOP frontrunner has served, and how each campaign (and who each campaign uses) to woo the military community will be a fascinating subplot.
So Virginia, not only do you get to play an outsized role in the general election, the way this GOP primary campaign is shaping up, you may play an outsized role in deciding the nominee...
That is if Gingrich can get on the ballot.
Chuck Todd is NBC News' Political Director and host of "The Daily Rundown," which can be seen at 9 a.m. weekdays on MSNBC. Read the national edition of First Read featuring Chuck, Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro on msnbc.com.