STERLING, Va. - Joe Biden couldn't give up the rope line.

The Democratic presidential hopeful and former vice president rallied party activists in Virginia on Sunday, two days before a pivotal state election. But he spoke for fewer than eight minutes and then plunged into the crowd to spend the next 40 minutes hugging, selfie-shooting and grinning.

The partisan crowd of about 200 loved it.

On a sunny autumn Sunday, Biden joined former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, local Democratic officeholders and party leaders on an outdoor stage set up in an office park. Manyin the crowd planned to spend the rest of the afternoon knocking on doors, planting signs and telephoning potential voters. But they delayed their plans on the hope of getting at least a photo, and maybe a word, with the leading Democratic candidate for the presidential nomination.

"I think he's going to be a great candidate," said Christopher Ambrose, 59, of Fairfax County. "I was telling him that I'm collecting petition signatures to get him on the [primary] ballot, and he said thanks."

"He just said hi, and I said God bless you and thank you for coming to the Commonwealth," said a besotted Chris Kriston, 52, of Sterling. "We've got to get a Democrat back in the presidency."

But first, there's Tuesday.

Democrats are hoping to take majorities in the House of Delegates and state Senate. All 140 seats are on the ballot, with Republicans protecting paper-thin majorities of 51-48 in the House and 20-19 in the Senate; each chamber has one vacancy.

"As Virginia goes, so goes the nation," Biden earlier told the crowd. He mentioned the National Rifle Association headquarters, a short distance from the rally. "It's going to be so sweet when you beat them . . . The NRA is one of the reasons we're losing our soul in this country."

Gun policy was named by voters as the top overall issue this election year in a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll. The state suffered a mass shooting in Virginia Beach in May, prompting Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, to convene a special session of the General Assembly to take up gun control. But Republicans who control the legislature shut down the July session in 90 minutes without taking up a single piece of legislation, handing Democrats a campaign issue that they have been running on ever since. National gun control groups have poured money into the state.

Del. John Bell, a Democrat who is running for the state Senate in a district that includes Loudoun and Prince William counties against Republican Geary Higgins, has made gun control a central theme of his campaign and was at the Biden event.

Also on hand were House Democratic leader Eileen Filler-Corn, Democratic Senate leader Dick Saslaw and Phyllis Randall, Loudoun County Board chairwoman. They all called for "common sense" gun laws, which they accused Virginia Republicans of blocking.

If Democrats win control of the legislature, they will join with Northam to consolidate control of state government for the first time in a generation. They have promised swift action on a number of priorities in addition to gun control: passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, an increase in the minimum wage and greater spending on transportation.

"All you gotta do is pick up a couple seats in two houses and everything changes," Biden told the enthusiastic crowd at the office park. "You don't want to wake up like in 2017 and have to pull a name out of a hat."

Biden was referring to the race for House of Delegates in Newport News in 2017 between Del. David Yancey, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds that ended in a tie that was broken when a state election official pulled Yancey's name out of a bowl on live national television. Three other races were nearly as close.

That year, Democrats flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates, cutting into the GOP's margin of control.

National Democrats and Republicans are watching the Virginia election for clues about 2020. Of the four states holding legislative contests this year, Virginia is the only one where control is up for grabs.

Biden's appearance at the rally on Sunday came a day after Vice President Mike Pence appeared before a crowd of 900 people in Virginia Beach to urge Republicans to turn out on Tuesday.

As he introduced Biden, McAuliffe noted Pence's Saturday appearance and the absence of President Donald Trump, who's favorability ratings in Virginia are underwater.

"Guess who has not come to Virginia even though the White House is only 1.4 miles from Virginia?" McAuliffe asked. "He may golf here, but he doesn't come here for votes."

Retiree Bob Griesbach, a Democratic precinct captain in Loudoun County, said that even with the help of those national figures, "some of our races are so close, it's going to be hard to tell" who will win. He sees Loudoun and his own neighborhood trending more Democratic with every election, and he takes heart in the perception that "Republicans are having a harder and harder time covering the polls on Election Day" with volunteers handing out election material.

"They keep telling us as Loudoun goes, so goes Virginia," Griesbach said, citing recent local and state results. "Every year, our percentage improves. And we have every shift covered."

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