In a lieutenant governor's race that has so far garnered only a sliver of voter attention, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine is campaigning throughout Virginia with a banner that reads: "Issue #1: Education."

"In a race like this, it's hard to break through to the voters, so you try to get just one or two ideas out there," Kaine said during a campaign stop in Sterling on Saturday. "We wanted to keep the focus on education, because I think it's important and Virginia voters will agree with us on that. But sometimes things happen that are out of your control."

He is aware that voters may have other perceptions of him based on his rivals' efforts to characterize his political leanings.

Namely, is he a conservative, or a liberal?

The basics are these: Kaine, 43, a Democrat, is a Harvard-trained civil rights lawyer, who, until he resigned to run this year, was the popular mayor of Richmond. He has a wife and three children. He said he is running to improve public education, fight crime and create jobs.

His opponents however, have alternately taken pains to characterize him as either too conservative or too liberal. Actually, Kaine's life and habits of mind often land on both sides of the political divide.

Kaine stresses, for example, his support for the get-tough-on-gun-crime program in Richmond, which has helped drop the city's homicide rate by 55 percent. He also supported the abolition of parole. But he opposes the toughest penalty of all: capital punishment.

A Catholic, he said he accepts the church's position against abortion but opposes efforts to restrict abortions, even the 24-hour waiting period, saying people share "honest differences" over the issue.

He and the Richmond City Council have funneled more money into the schools, calling them a high priority and doubling the amount spent for school construction. But Kaine also calls himself a fiscal conservative, and over the same period the city's tax rate has dipped.

Such positions leave him open to various political interpretations.

In the Democratic primary, an opponent's mailing cast him as too conservative, as a Republican "masquerading" as a Democrat.

And now in the general election, his Republican opponent, Del. Jay Katzen (Fauquier), portrayed Kaine in early stump speeches as an "extremist" liberal, a supporter of gay marriage and an enemy of American institutions like the Boy Scouts, the Pledge of Allegiance and the flag.

"I'll tell you folks," the Republican said last summer, in a reference to the issue of homosexual marriages. "Virginia is not Vermont."

Katzen's campaign now says most of those allegations were based on "false assumptions." Kaine denies all those assertions and still seems sore.

"I was a Scout. My kids were Scouts. I support the Scouts," Kaine said, shaking his head. "I just wanted to know where these things were coming from."

He shrugged: "I have thick skin. Politics in Richmond were bare-knuckle, too."

Kaine the politician is in many ways best understood in terms of his faith and his civil rights law practice. Each had origins in his childhood.

Kaine grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kan., the eldest of three sons. "Timmy" was an altar boy and sang in the choir and, as a student in a Jesuit high school, he conducted a survey of social service needs in poor neighborhoods.

He took a year off while attending Harvard Law School to volunteer at a mission in Honduras.

"I think his interest in politics stemmed from that year," said Mark O'Connell, a childhood friend and a Republican who has stayed close to Kaine. "I think he realized what a difference he could make in people's lives."

Kaine describes his time in Honduras as a turning point that brought him back to his faith after a time of collegiate doubts:

"I saw the role that faith plays in the lives of people who are in really tough circumstances. I started to realize I had a lot to learn."

These days, he attends Mass every Sunday and, when time permits, sings in the choir at St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church, a predominantly black parish in Richmond.

His other passion, civil rights law, arose when he was 11, he said, after he read a condensed version of "To Kill a Mockingbird," the Harper Lee novel featuring a heroic small-town lawyer. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1983, married fellow student Anne Holton and at her urging moved to Richmond. Today, her father, former Republican governor A. Linwood Holton Jr., is campaigning for him.

As a Richmond lawyer, Kaine has taken on a wide range of civil rights cases, from death penalty defenses to fair housing actions. His biggest victory came in 1998, when he won a $100 million jury verdict against Nationwide Insurance, which was accused of discriminating against predominantly black neighborhoods. The case was later settled on appeal, with the fair housing group getting $17.5 million.

In 1994, he began to ponder a run for the City Council and sought out the advice of his father-in-law, who offered these words of wisdom: Don't do it.

"He said that local politics, and especially Richmond politics, were the graveyard of too many good politicians," Kaine said. But he ran anyway, campaigning as a bridge builder in the racially divided city who could cut crime and bring people together.

He won, and then in 1998 and in 2000, won the council's vote to become mayor.

He counts among the city's main achievements during his tenure the halving of the violent crime rate, the construction of new schools and modest increases in test scores despite a school population wracked by poverty.

But he is widely credited with helping defuse racial animosities that divided the city. One of the council's first controversies during his tenure, for example, arose over the proposal to erect a statue of African American tennis player Arthur Ashe on the city's Monument Avenue, a corridor lined with the likenesses of Confederate heroes.

"He has been able to bridge the divide that had traditionally prevented the city from reaching its potential," said Robert D. Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy, at Virginia Commonwealth University, based in Richmond. "He's a pragmatist and he's very well-liked."

The downside of this approach, according to Holsworth: "This kind of leader finds it difficult to make the dramatic changes that could really anger people but might improve the city."

Either way, the jump from mayor to lieutenant governor is a big one. While Kaine never spent more than $20,000 in a council race, he said, he has raised more than $1.6 million for this year's race and he expects to spend more than $2 million.

"It's humbling actually," he said. "I go across the state and see these people working for me who have never met me before. You realize that it is much bigger than yourself."

"I think Virginia needs a bridge builder," Kaine said. "Just look at the budget debacle last year. They couldn't get anything passed. It's a cliche, but if you work by uniting people, rather than by dividing them along artificial lines, you can get things done."

Timothy M. Kaine, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, talks to Nick Palatiello during a Herndon parade.