LEESBURG, Va. -- In many ways, it's an odd topic to make a central campaign issue: sequestration.
Many voters greet the word with a blank stare or slightly glazed eyes, and when Republican George Allen brings up the issue in his Senate campaign, he first has to explain what he's talking about.
What's more, the issue will come to a head before either he or his opponent, Democrat Tim Kaine, will be sworn in.
Still, in a state like Virginia where a big chunk of the economy is dependent on government spending and military dollars in particular, the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration are a critical issue. Whether it's a political issue that connects with voters remains to be seen.
"I think Virginians are well aware of it," said Allen, who perhaps more than any other candidate has latched on to sequestration as a campaign issue. "People in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads (parts of the state with large populations of military workers and contractors) are really aware of it."
In the last of the presidential debates Monday night, President Barack Obama said flatly that sequestration "will not occur." But the White House also has made clear that Obama hasn't given up making any alternative include higher taxes on the wealthy.
In a nutshell, sequestration was put into play as part of a budget compromise in August 2011 that averted a default on the federal debt. Under the compromise, which had bipartisan support, Congress would have to come up with $1.2 trillion in alternative budget cuts by the end of this year.
If it were to fail, automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion over nine years would begin on Jan. 2, 2012, with half coming from defense. The sequester cuts were designed to be so painful that Congress would be compelled to act. They are a big part of the so-called fiscal cliff, from which the country could plunge back into recession, economists warn, if Congress also lets all of the Bush-era tax cuts expire at the first of the year.
Obama signed the budget deal. The Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, voted for it. So did House Speaker John Boehner. Neither Allen nor Kaine was a member of Congress at the time.
The looming, one-year defense cuts of about $55 billion also have popped up in House races in California and Colorado, where Democratic challengers have criticized incumbent Republicans for jeopardizing military dollars and jobs. In key states and districts, the obscure deal is a pocketbook issue with voters still jittery over jobs and bills in the wake of recession.
In a newly redrawn San Diego-area district, Democratic challenger Scott Peters has criticized GOP Rep. Brian Bilbray for voting for the budget plan, warning of the potential loss of 30,000 jobs in the region. Bilbray insisted that it wasn't ideal, but it was the best bipartisan solution available.
In a suburban Denver district that is home to Buckley Air Force Base, Democratic challenger Joe Miklosi assails Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, arguing that the congressman and other House Republicans have forced the crisis by refusing to compromise on a budget deal.
"Some of these people are going to get a pink slip because Congress didn't do its job," said Miklosi. "We're playing with people's lives here. They're nervous, they're concerned."
Coffman, who served in Iraq with the Marines, said most voters are broadly concerned about the national budget but aren't yet attuned to the latest fiscal deadline and what it would mean. He believes a spending deal will be reached in time to avoid the cuts, saying he gets questions about sequestration mostly from business executives in military industries.
"They're very worried about it, but it hasn't filtered down to the rank-and-file employees in those same businesses," Coffman said.
Kaine, a former governor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a debate in July that he supported the default-avoiding budget compromise. Allen seized on the remark and has run ads accusing Kaine of supporting a deal that holds the military hostage. He cites studies that have shown that as many as 200,000 jobs in Virginia could be lost if sequestration takes effect.
Kaine, for his part, makes clear that he opposes sequestration and the defense cuts associated with it. He has offered an alternative that would mix other spending cuts with higher taxes on those making above $500,000 a year.
His spokeswoman, Brandi Hoffine, said the issue shows a difference in the candidates' philosophies: Kaine was willing to accept an imperfect compromise to prevent the potential catastrophe of default, while Allen would have shunned compromise and risked default to pursue an all-or-nothing agenda.
"Business people know that a default would have had a very serious impact on the entire economy, including defense," Hoffine said.
In Loudoun County, an outer suburb of Washington and home to some tech companies and defense contractors, the issue of sequestration is not pervasive, said Tony Howard, president of the county's Chamber of Commerce.
"Inside the Beltway it dominates the conversation." Howard said. "Here, I don't think it's something that a lot of the rank-and-file business owners are focused on."
Business owners, Howard said, more generally see the sequestration dilemma as a broader symptom of the general dysfunction in Washington.
"A lot of the business people I talk to, they don't get it. They don't understand why compromise is a dirty word," he said. "In business, you have to compromise."
At a rally last week for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in Chesapeake, Va., part of the Hampton Roads region that has a large military presence, the issue was important for some voters but not others.
"It's a big issue, not only because I work in the shipyard, because if the federal government is going to spend money, it should spend money to protect and defend the country," said Vitor Maruues, a retired Air Force maintenance officer and now an engineering analyst at Newport News Shipbuilding. "I'd rather have paid workers in the shipyard and other defense contractors that are scientists, engineers, metal cutters, pipe fitters, plumbers than provide for people on unemployment, on food stamps and on welfare."
Associated Press writers Brock Vergakis in Chesapeake, Va., Kristen Wyatt in Denver and Henry C. Jackson in Washington contributed to this report.