Democratic Leaders Turn to Kaine

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

RICHMOND, Jan. 19 -- Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has been tapped by national Democratic leaders to give his party's response to President Bush's State of the Union speech on Jan. 31, party leaders said in a statement Thursday night.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) called Kaine on Thursday, and he accepted, according to the statement, also issued by Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

"Throughout his career in public service, Governor Kaine has been a champion for working families, putting their priorities above the needs of the special interests," the statement said. "The success of his positive message in Virginia is indicative of the resonance of Democratic values with the American people."

The statement said Kaine will talk about the "Democratic vision that focuses on the priorities of all Americans" in a brief address from the governor's mansion in Richmond.

Kevin Hall, Kaine's spokesman, said: "Governor Kaine is obviously honored and pleased that he'll have a chance to hold Virginia up as an example to the nation on achieving results."

Kaine, who was elected in November to become Virginia's 70th governor, is seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party. He won convincingly in a conservative state, and he campaigned as a fiscal conservative and spoke frequently about the importance of his faith.

For national Democrats, those messages are attractive as both parties head toward the midterm elections later this year.

In the aftermath of the congressional lobbying scandals, Democrats are trying to capitalize on what they call a culture of corruption in the Republican-controlled Congress. That makes it appealing to turn to an outside-the-Beltway figure, rather than a member of Congress, for the response to Bush's speech this month.

"There is something to be said for going outside of Congress to look for some new blood and showcase some other people, especially governors," said Mark Rozell, a professor of politics at George Mason University.

For Kaine, the selection is the culmination of a whirlwind of activity since he defeated Republican Jerry W. Kilgore on Nov. 8.

Kaine spent weeks traveling around the state at town hall meetings on transportation. Last Saturday, he was inaugurated in Colonial Williamsburg and gave his first speech as the state's new governor.

This week, he presented his legislative priorities to lawmakers, including a push for new controls on growth and development. Friday, he is scheduled to announce his plans for raising money to improve the state's transportation network.

Rozell said the honor of being picked to be the face of the Democratic Party -- if only for a few minutes -- can only help Kaine as he begins his four-year term.

"It's wonderful visibility for Kaine. It's an opportunity to introduce him to the country," Rozell said. He added that Kaine is not likely to offer a red-meat, partisan attack after the president's speech.

"I just don't see any political benefit. He's leading in a Republican state. Why inflame things?" Rozell said.

In previous years, congressional leaders have chosen insiders, such as Reid and former House leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), or governors, to give the response to the State of the Union address.

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