Virginia Governor's Race Seen as Crucial to Timothy M. Kaine's Political Future

President Obama speaks at a Tysons Corner rally Aug. 6 for state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, left, the Virginia Democratic governor's candidate. With him is Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who has helped plan Deeds's campaign strategy.
President Obama speaks at a Tysons Corner rally Aug. 6 for state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, left, the Virginia Democratic governor's candidate. With him is Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who has helped plan Deeds's campaign strategy. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 23, 2009

RICHMOND -- Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine calls state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, the Democratic nominee for governor, as often as every other day some weeks to plot strategy and commiserate about the unrelenting, road-tripping life of a candidate.

Kaine has hosted several events for his good friend, including fundraisers and private luncheons, directed $550,000 to his campaign and recorded a radio ad for him. Their staffs consult daily, and Kaine's wife has even called Deeds's wife to help her navigate the role of being a candidate's spouse.

"He's been through two statewide campaigns," Deeds said. "He's walked the same path I'm walking. I look to him for advice and friendship."

Aside from Deeds and his Republican opponent, Robert F. McDonnell, no one has as much riding on this year's gubernatorial election as Kaine. In Virginia, Kaine is under pressure to help elect Deeds to cement his legacy as a popular governor and to extend his party's recent electoral successes. Nationally, Democrats will be counting on Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to deliver his own state and provide a political boost to President Obama. If he can't manage that, many will wonder how effective a chairman he can be.

Craig Bieber, a longtime Democratic political consultant not affiliated with the Deeds campaign, said Kaine can help Deeds win over the unenthusiastic Democratic base and suburban voters who might be skeptical of a senator from one of the most rural parts of the state. But, he said, Kaine must be careful to help Deeds without tying him to his own sagging approval rating and national politics.

"The pressure is on Kaine. The pressure is on Obama. They certainly want to do everything they can to help Deeds," Bieber said. "But [Deeds] can't get lumped into being a national Democrat. He has to convince voters that he is different from national Democrats."

Kaine has appeared publicly with Deeds at three rallies and a pair of Northern Virginia fundraisers -- one with Obama and one at the McLean home of developer Mark Lowham -- and hosted a luncheon with 60 business leaders in Richmond. He will hold another fundraiser for Deeds in early September and plans to join him on the campaign trail Labor Day weekend, the unofficial kickoff of the race.

Publicly, Deeds campaign officials insist that Kaine is an asset and that they are proud to have his support. But privately, some say they realize it's not always politically beneficial for Deeds to be associated with him. Kaine's popularity rating remains above 50 percent but is waning, and his position as party chairman brings with it the burdens of a national party that voters are viewing with increasing skepticism. Some Democrats have also privately criticized the governor for oddly timed announcements that had the effect of overshadowing Deeds campaign events.

As a result, Deeds has subtly sought to limit his public connections to Kaine, a strategy the politically savvy governor has blessed. On Friday, for instance, Deeds aired his first television ad of the general election campaign. It includes a clip of Deeds walking with Sen. Mark Warner (D) but makes no mention of Kaine.

"He knows his own mind. He knows what he wants to do," Kaine said. "I want to be helpful. . . . When he asks me for help, I want to provide it. He'll decide how much he wants me to do."

Kaine has been stymied on many of his most ambitious policy goals by a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall and an uncooperative House of Delegates, which is controlled by the GOP. His legacy remains largely political, helping to usher in Democratic gains in what had long been a conservative Southern state. He helped Democrats win two U.S. Senate seats, regain control of the state Senate and carry the state in a presidential election for the first time in more than four decades.

This year's elections in Virginia and New Jersey -- the only two states with governor's races -- are considered the first electoral tests for Obama and Kaine's young tenure as DNC chairman.

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