Tim Kaine and George Allen shake hands at a debate in McLean, Va., on Sept. 20. / Evan Vucci, AP
BLACKSBURG, Va. - Virginians have become accustomed to heavyweight Senate elections pitting ex-governors against one another, but for a long time they also watched from a distance as the rest of the country decided the presidency.
This year, the overlay of a close presidential election between President Obama - who in 2008 was the first Democrat to win Virginia since 1964 - and Mitt Romney, has thrust this state into the national spotlight.
The Senate contest between former governors with vastly different styles, Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine, is one of the most closely watched around the country. The winner could be the difference between which party controls the Senate next year. The winner of the presidential contest in Virginia could decide the presidency. Polls show both races very close as the campaign enters its final days.
Despite more than $55 million already spent on this Senate race, and roughly $30 million of it from independent groups on both sides, Allen, 60, and Kaine, 54, are both so familiar to Virginians that the outcome may rest on which candidate a small percentage of undecided voters likes and feels is the most genuine, according to Robert Denton, a Virginia Tech communications professor and longtime observer of state politics.
And on that measure, both candidates are running against their pasts.
For Kaine, a 2009-2011 stint as chairman of the Democratic National Committee under Obama has challenged a long-nurtured reputation as a conciliator and common-ground seeker. It was widely reported that leading Democrats leaned on Kaine to run so Democrats could hold the seat being vacated by fellow Democrat Jim Webb. Republicans have used that to paint Kaine as a "yes" vote for Obama policies on health care, higher taxes for the wealthy, and defense cuts that Republicans say hurt small business and defense contractors in the defense-dependent state.
In a mid-October debate here, Allen accused Kaine of abandoning Virginia when he was governor during the economic downturn while traveling the country to raise money for Democrats and attack Republicans.
"I want to be Virginia's senator," Allen said. "Tim wants to be President Obama's senator."
Kaine countered that when he was governor from 2006 through 2010 he had worked with Republican President George W. Bush on everything from rail projects to strengthening campus security in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.
"We are all Americans; we are all Virginians," Kaine said, invoking a verse in Psalms about brotherhood, a reminder that the Catholic Kaine took a leave from Harvard Law School to be a missionary in Honduras.
Allen, son of legendary Washington Redskins football coach George H. Allen, has tried to come across as a kinder, gentler version of the man who, in 2006, was defeated for re-election after he called an Indian-American "macaca," an ethnic slur, during a campaign event. The episode went viral and made Allen one of the first political victims of the YouTube era. It also added to his image of a swashbuckling senator and ex-governor, a man who had once said he enjoyed knocking Democrats' "soft teeth down their whiny throats."
Allen lost in 2006 to Webb by less than 10,000 votes.
"Losing that election was a humbling experience, and you learn from losing and have time to reflect," said Allen, who still wears the cowboy boots that have been a trademark of his political career.
The mild-mannered Kaine doesn't raise "macaca," but still finds ways to remind Virginians of Allen's history.
At their final debate Oct. 18 on the campus of Virginia Tech, Kaine accused Allen of falsely claiming that Kaine supported deep defense cuts laid out in a budget agreement that survived a divided Congress last year. He said the false accusations were typical of Allen, and added, "We need less of that in Washington and we need more people who can build bridges."
Denton said undecided voters who might be tipped by bridge-builder rhetoric could be the final deciders in the race. That is, if the campaign hasn't already turned them off. A steady barrage of political advertising that Ohioans or Floridians would see as old hat is a relatively new concept in Thomas Jefferson's commonwealth. Denton estimated that through September, Virginia had been saturated with 13 times more political ads - nearly 90,000 total - than in 2008.
"There is a danger Virginians are getting tired of this race," Denton said. "Especially the older, more mature citizens, don't like the tone of it, and the danger is there might be voter cynicism. If it gets too negative then they may say heck on either side."
Despite that turn-off potential, on the airwaves and in the mailboxes of southern Virginia, Allen, Romney and allied independent groups have been hammering Kaine and Obama for supporting "cap and trade" carbon-reduction legislation that Republicans say will devastate to the state's coal production and electricity rates.
Across the state, the GOP is hitting Obama and Kaine for "Obamacare" policies they say are burdens on small businesses and a costly government takeover of health care.
In the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where an influx of immigrants and young professionals has changed the state's political demographics dramatically over the last decade, Democrats are attacking Allen and Romney for opposing abortion rights, and for proposing changes to Medicare and Social Security they say threaten both programs.
Kaine has also broken from Obama on taxes. To help balance the budget, Kaine says he would support raising rates on those making more than $500,000; Obama wants to raise them on anyone making more than $250,000. Kaine campaign adviser Mo Elleithee said the higher trigger point is partially due to a recognition that small-business owners might be hurt at the $250,000 threshold.
Kaine and Allen have made heavy use of surrogates to address key segments. Allen's wife, Susan, has been as active on the campaign trail as he has, and she is trying to help eliminate a potential gender gap for Republicans. In ads and on the stump, Kaine has made heavy use of fellow Sen. Mark Warner, another Democrat and ex-governor, with a bridge-building reputation.
This is the third of the last five Virginia Senate races that has pitted ex-governors against one another.
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