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Though often overshadowed, DNC Chairman Tim Kaine remains a tireless, loyal messenger

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 7:00 AM

NEW YORK--There might be no worse job in American politics today than Tim Kaine's. As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the former Virginia governor has logged nearly 200,000 miles this campaign season, his life a whirl of cold chicken, anonymous hotel rooms and the seemingly endless task of slipping on and off his black leather shoes at one airport security checkpoint after another.

And three weeks before Election Day, Kaine finds himself at the head of a dispirited party that faces the possibility of historic losses.

By the usual standards, Kaine has done what party leaders are supposed to do. He's raised a record amount of money, always stays on message and, unlike Republican counterpart Michael Steele, does not attract unwanted attention.

In fact, Kaine seems to attract little attention at all. He's an often forgotten, even invisible presence, drowned out by President Obama and a cast of higher-profile Democrats. It is unclear how much blame or credit he'll receive, no matter what happens in November.

When Kaine delivered a "major national address" in Philadelphia, the television networks instead aired an economic speech by the president. When Kaine went to the University of Delaware recently to rally students, the lecture hall was half empty.

And when Kaine appeared on "The Daily Show" last month, his performance became an afterthought. Vice President Biden headlined "The Colbert Report" the same night.

If his role bothers Kaine, it doesn't show. He hustles from television hit to fundraiser to pep rally, with gusto and endless optimism. Kaine says he does it all for the president he reveres and the party he loves, and the possibility that no matter how much of a beating Democrats take, he and the DNC will come out of it better than where they started.

As he bit into a roast beef sandwich aboard an Acela train rumbling toward New York recently, he looked out the window and observed: "We've got a hard road to go, but we've been down hard roads like this." And then he summed neatly the tone he is trying to set for the party: "I think we need to be the happy warriors. It's the opposite of anxious warriors. I think we need to be proud of who we are and what we've done."

Kaine's supporters say he is emotionally suited to navigate this political moment. He has been a force of calm and continuity shepherding a distressed party. Lately during his travels, Kaine has turned to reciting a James Cleveland freedom hymn that he learned to sing in his Virginia church choir:

I don't feel no ways tired,

I've come too far from where I started from.

Nobody told me that the road would be easy,

I don't believe He brought me this far to leave me.

Kinship with Obama

Kaine, 52, shares a unique kinship with Obama. Both were civil rights lawyers with Harvard pedigrees. Both spent formative time in the Third World: Obama in Indonesia and Kaine as a Catholic missionary in Honduras. Both of their mothers were from the same Kansas hamlet, El Dorado.

When Kaine met Obama in 2005, after reading Obama's memoir, he pointed out their similarities. Kaine recalls that the hot-shot Illinois senator replied: "Wow, we're probably supposed to help each other out in life."

And they have. Kaine was one of Obama's earliest endorsers in 2007 and spent two years criss-crossing the country as a loyal surrogate. He was a runner-up to Biden for vice president, and Obama tapped him to run the DNC and maintain the vast grassroots network built during the 2008 campaign. The two talk regularly: over lunch at the White House, backstage at events, in Obama's motorcade shuttling to fundraisers.

It's perhaps his biggest asset in his current job. "He has a very close personal relationship with the president of the United States, and I cannot tell you the importance of that," said Terry McAuliffe, a former DNC chairman who enjoys a similar relationship with former president Bill Clinton. "It gives him tremendous credibility when he travels around. People know when they talk to Tim that message will get on to President Obama."

This relationship was briefly tested last weekend when Politico reported the possibility that Kaine might be replaced by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. The White House was quick to douse the story, saying Obama is pleased with Kaine's performance.

Senior adviser David Axelrod said that whether Kaine stays on as chairman "would be up to him." Kaine has long been rumored as a likely Cabinet secretary, and supporters say his service to the administration would not end at the DNC.

"The president has enormous confidence in him and affection for him, and he's done a really good job under difficult circumstances," Axelrod said. "He's just an extraordinarily well-motivated, bright, infectiously ebullient guy. He's in public life for all the right reasons, and he's just a very decent person, which comes across."

Top Democrats say Kaine is a disciplined messenger and a strong fundraiser. The DNC under Kaine has raised $75 million this year, the highest sum ever for a midterm election year.

Last year, when Republicans swept the Virginia elections, Kaine bore some blame for his home state losing control to the GOP. But he soon rebounded, and top Democrats now say they have no criticisms of him.

They also say Kaine is somewhat irrelevant. Like any chairman when his party controls the presidency, Kaine takes his cue from the White House. Sometimes it seems that Kaine is less a principal than a senior staffer.

"It's a different job for him than it was for me," said Howard Dean, Kaine's predecessor. "He has one client. I had, you know, lots."

Although Kaine oversees a $50 million midterm-election strategy, congressional leaders say the White House is pulling the levers. "It's tough when you're not the decision maker because you don't have a carrot or stick to use," said a senior House leadership aide, who was granted anonymity to discuss internal party dynamics. "You just have cajoling."

Walking a fine line

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a former DNC chairman, said Kaine makes an effective figurehead because of his "likeability quotient - his personality, his manner, his demeanor."

"It's important when you talk [to independent voters] that you don't yell at them, you don't demonize the other side, and when you're trying to stir the base, it's important to tell them we're fighting for all that's right and good, and the other side is tearing it down," Rendell said. "It's a fine line to walk, and I think Tim does an exceptional job at it."

Kaine's job is to spin the news media and the public, and during more than two hours of interviews recently, he rarely veered off script. Asked how he reacts to the angry rhetoric about his friend and boss, Kaine grew animated.

"When I see people who just want to trifle with [Obama] - you're not born in the United States; you're a Muslim; 'You lie' on the floor of Congress; I don't think you should be able to talk to school kids on the opening day of class - when I see that thing it really, really motivates me because this is the right guy for the time," he said.

"The verbiage these guys use is a 'take-the-country-back' verbiage. I don't want to go back. There's nothing in back that makes me feel great. We just came out of a lost decade. Americans got badly hurt. I don't want to go backward."

Perhaps more than most political figures, Kaine tries to maintain a semblance of normalcy. He still lives in Richmond, where he once served as mayor, and spends Mondays teaching constitutional law at the University of Richmond. Every Tuesday, he joins his buddies for breakfast at a local diner before driving two hours north to Washington.

Most weeks, after a day in the office, Kaine hits the road for fundraisers, speeches and visits with volunteers. Since becoming chairman in 2009, Kaine has traveled to 39 states and more than 600 political events.

When his train arrived in New York last month, Kaine went to Jon Stewart's green room. His "Daily Show" taping would begin shortly, and he was a bit nervous.

The show's producer told Kaine to just be himself. "Leave the funny to us," she implored.

The chairman asked his communications director, Brad Woodhouse: "Give me my mental state of mind before I head out there."

"Have fun. Happy warrior," Woodhouse said.

"Slap-happy warrior?"

"No. Just happy warrior."

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