Tim Kaine of Virginia

by Michael O. Allen on June 12, 2008

Va. governor could help fill gap for Obama: Centrist seen as dark horse among VP possibilities By Lisa Wangsness, Globe Staff, June 12, 2008

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – He is the popular governor of a critical swing state. He has working-class roots and a Harvard degree, and strong support from both business and labor. He is a devout Catholic and speaks fluent Spanish, and was the first governor outside Illinois to endorse Barack Obama for president.

Governor Tim Kaine is probably the least well known of the trio of rising Democratic stars from Virginia. The others – US Senator Jim Webb, the flame-throwing author and former Navy secretary, and former governor Mark Warner, the wealthy venture capitalist who briefly flirted with a presidential run – are regularly listed as vice presidential possibilities.

But Kaine’s biography and political resume fill many of the perceived gaps in Obama’s profile, making him for some analysts a dark horse in veepstakes 2008.

“The case for him is Virginia is a competitive state this time around, and he is kind of a centrist,” said Dan Palazzolo, a political scientist at the University of Richmond. “He’s prolife, basically, and he’s got this probusiness background. He’s also a big supporter of Obama.”

But, as Palazzolo notes, Kaine has no military or foreign policy experience, credentials Obama also lacks and that could prove a detriment for Republican John McCain, a Navy veteran and former prisoner of war who has traveled extensively around the world during his 22 years in the US Senate. “I think they’re substantial downsides,” Palazzolo said.

Obama, though, clearly has warm feelings for Kaine, who befriended the Illinois senator when he came to Virginia to stump for Kaine in 2005. (They discovered that their mothers came from the same small town in Kansas.) Campaigning in Virginia last week, Obama appeared with all three of Virginia’s Democratic notables, but he reserved special affection for Kaine.

“When you’re in the political business, there are a lot of people who are your allies, there are a lot of people who you’ve got to do business with, but you don’t always have a lot of friends,” Obama said at a rally, according to the Washington Post’s Virginia Politics blog. “The governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia is my friend.”

It is easy to see why Obama gets on well with Kaine. Even Republicans tend to describe him as a straight-shooter whose friendly demeanor makes him hard to vilify, though they disagree on policy. Like Obama, Kaine is also known as a formidable speaker; while not flashy, he has that rare ability to “talk to large groups of people just like he would if he was in their living room, just talking to them,” said Dave Albo, a Republican state legislator since 1994.

As governor, Kaine has modeled himself after Warner, a business-friendly centrist under whom he served as lieutenant governor from 2002 to 2006 and who is now running for US Senate. Both men boast of the good-government accolades their state received during their tenures.

Kaine said in an interview that their practical approach to governing has helped Virginia Democrats make enormous gains in recent years: In addition to controlling the governor’s office since 2002, Democrats have gained seats in the House of Delegates; won a majority in the state Senate in 2007; and, come November, stand a good chance of controlling both US Senate seats.

“We’ve grabbed the problem-solver mantle from the other guys,” Kaine said. “They’re more the ideological party. . . . And what people want is problem-solving.”

But demographic change – particularly the explosive growth in suburban Northern Virginia, where Obama racked up huge margins over Hillary Clinton in the February primary – is an even more obvious factor behind the Democratic victories. And it’s the main reason Obama hopes to win the state, which has not voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1964, in November.

“I never would have thought so, but I think it’s conceivable,” said Ronald B. Rapoport, a political scientist at The College of William & Mary. “It’s become much, much more Democratic.”

It is not clear, however, that of the three Virginian vice presidential possibilities, Kaine would help Obama the most. Warner ran stronger in some rural areas of the state where Obama is weak.

“It’s not because I don’t like Tim Kaine, and not because Tim Kaine is not electable in Virginia, but to reach the voters that Barack Obama needs to reach – you can either take a Scots-Irish icon or a guy who’s got an approval rating in the high 70s over here,” said David “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic strategist from rural Virginia, referring to Webb and Warner, respectively. (Saunders has worked for both Webb and Warner, but not for Kaine.)

Kaine has also recently called attention to what Republicans criticize as his liberal streak. In May, he proposed a $1 billion tax package to help cover the state’s growing transportation needs. And this week, he commuted the death sentence of a triple murderer on the grounds that he was too mentally impaired to comprehend he was about to die.

Though Kaine has not been as prominently mentioned among the governors seen as potential vice presidential choices, including Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, and Janet Napolitano of Arizona, his biography sets him apart.

Kaine, 50, was raised in Kansas City, Mo., the son of an ironworker and a home economics teacher. After graduating from the University of Missouri with an economics degree, he went to Harvard Law School. After his first year, he took a year off to serve as a Jesuit missionary in Honduras, running a small vocational school for teenage boys and honing his Spanish.

“I could see the direction most students at Harvard Law School were focused on, going to big law firms in big cities, and I didn’t think that was what I wanted to do,” he said in the interview last week. “But I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.”

Back at Harvard, he met his future wife, Anne Holton, the daughter of former Virginia governor Linwood Holton, a Republican who served in the 1970s and led the desegregation of the Commonwealth’s public schools, where he made a point of sending his own children. The Holton family introduced Kaine to politics. Still, he said, his father-in-law was taken aback when Kaine “got mad” at the Richmond City Council and decided to run for a seat.

In his 2005 campaign for governor, Kaine introduced himself as a leader guided by his “family and Christian faith,” and he used that image to fend off a Republican attack on a wedge issue.

When his GOP rival went after him for opposing the death penalty, Kaine responded with a TV ad in which he explained that his religious beliefs led him to oppose capital punishment, but that he would enforce the state’s laws.

Kaine said he hopes religious Democrats learn to talk about their faith in campaigns – not to proselytize, but to explain themselves to voters. “Democrats talk too often about, ‘Here’s what I think about this issue,’ ” he said. “They give the policies, but they don’t give the flesh and blood. Voters want to understand what motivates you.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at [email protected]

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