Tim Kaine alights from his campaign RV in the drowsy little towns of Southside Virginia like a visitor from another planet. Fresh-faced, Harvard Law School-educated and twang-free, Kaine, the Democratic lieutenant governor running for governor of Virginia, oozes all the down-home appeal of a tasseled loafer.
His pitch isn't exactly homespun either. Vote for me, Kaine says in his rapid-fire stump speech, and I'll safeguard Virginia's AAA bond rating!
In a down-on-its-luck region of shuttered textile mills and $7 barbers, there's no apparent groundswell of concern about Virginia's creditworthiness on the bond markets -- or surge of support so far for Kaine. If the Democrat can't inspire some passion here and in other rural parts of Virginia, his chances statewide against Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, the former attorney general, are doomed.
I followed Kaine on a recent campaign swing through South Boston, Danville and Martinsville. Five hours-plus southwest from the Beltway, these places are the anti-Northern Virginia: They've been losing jobs, young people and hope for years.
Still, Virginia's electoral math suggests that candidates, particularly Democrats, ignore the state's rural areas at their peril. Witness John Kerry, who won Fairfax County, by far the largest locality in Virginia, and still got swamped statewide by George W. Bush. Or Chuck Robb, who lost his Senate seat to George Allen in part because he floundered in the small towns of Southside and Southwest Virginia. And while the rural areas tilt Republican, they have plenty of independent and swing voters who might vote for the right Democrat.
Gov. Mark Warner got that. Warner knew that in a state that tips Republican, there were not enough votes in the urban centers of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads to put him over the top. So, starting well before the 2001 race, he lavished time, money and attention on rural Virginia. The strategy paid off: In rural pockets throughout the state, he either won or stopped the Republicans from running up big margins.
Kaine gets that too. And he does everything but wear a Warner mask to conflate himself with Virginia's wildly popular young governor.
But Kaine lacks some of Warner's best weapons from his 2001 arsenal -- namely, an unlimited personal fortune, a background uncluttered by political votes that must constantly be explained and defended, and a can-do business background that made Warner's political persona somehow less political. A self-made telecommunications mogul, Warner was able to campaign as a NASCAR enthusiast, with a hired bluegrass band. Kaine can't pull that off and doesn't try.
Then there's Kilgore, who starts with a huge advantage in rural Virginia beyond his GOP credentials: A native of Scott County, just north of Tennessee, Kilgore is the twangiest candidate for statewide office in Virginia in some time.
So Kaine has devised his own two-pronged strategy for appealing to rural Virginia. First, he wraps himself in Warner's main achievement, raising $1.5 billion in new annual revenue (read: taxes) to help Virginia schools and shore up state finances. Second, he sells himself as a man of faith and values -- a rock-solid Catholic whose missionary year off from law school, spent working with poor youths in Honduras, changed his life.
The first dovetails with Kaine's insistence that he alone will carry on Warner's legacy of sound finances (and those all-important AAA bond ratings), while Kilgore would turn back the clock by starving the state of revenue.
The second is a variation on Warner's underlying theme: Sure, I'm a Democrat, but the kind Virginia Republicans can learn to love.
Will Kaine's strategy work? There's no sign of it yet. And as he pursues it, he has plenty to worry about in rural Virginia, starting with his ambiguous record on the death penalty, gun control and abortion.
On Main Street in South Boston, with its cracked windows and boarded-up storefronts, the man running the Puff 'n Stuff lunch counter said Warner has "done a great job," but he hadn't noticed much from Kaine so far.
And how about Kilgore? Oh, said the man, he's stopped in for coffee. Twice.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.