It’s not unusual, on an election-year Sunday, to find a white candidate in a black church. But Tim Kaine, swaying this month to the gospel groove at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in a poor Richmond neighborhood, wasn’t on the campaign trail. He was taking a break from it at his home parish.

“How you doing, brother?” said Peter Thompson, 53, a lean black man in a green fedora, hugging the round-faced Kaine on the church steps.

The part-time Pizza Hut cook and the former governor have known each other since Kaine joined the church almost three decades ago. “We helped start the Men’s Group together,” Thompson said.

Kaine, 54, and his wife, Anne Holton, made their way into the cool bright sanctuary, stopped by friends every few feet to swap Sunday greetings and family news. The Kaines were married in 1984 at St. E’s altar. All three of their children were baptized at its font.

For Kaine, religion saturates both life and politics. A former missionary in rural Honduras, he talks frequently of how Catholicism informs his views on race and poverty and his deep embrace of cultural diversity, which he hails as “God’s rich tapestry.”

Faith has been one of the twin pillars of Kaine’s political success. The other is a reputation for bipartisanship that has taken a hit from his two years as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Both themes help explain the rise of a Midwestern social-justice Democrat in a churchgoing, socially conservative southern state. Virginia, which began shifting from red to purple about the time Kaine first ran for statewide office a decade ago, proved hospitable to Kaine’s blend of religious zeal and political pragmatism.

But if faith is central to Kaine’s political identity, it is also a source of personal pain for an otherwise unfailingly upbeat campaigner.

As he runs against Republican George Allen for a hotly contested open Senate seat, he acknowledges the “wrenching” cuts to social welfare programs he made as a recession-era governor. And he grows even more solemn when the topic is capital punishment, the point at which Kaine’s political ambitions appeared to trump his moral convictions.

When Kaine first ran for statewide office in 2001, not only was he an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, he had also defended death row inmates as a pro-bono attorney. It was not a promising profile in a state that remains second only to Texas in the number of executions since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

Kaine adroitly defused the issue, promising voters he would not block the state’s death penalty machinery, despite his personal beliefs.

Other Catholic governors have found ways to curtail executions on their watches. New Mexico’s Toney Anaya (D) commuted the death sentences of all five death row inmates at the end of his term in 1986. Illinois’s George Ryan (R) declared a moratorium on executions in 2000; Maryland’s Martin O’Malley (D) effectively did the same in December 2006.

“I think people had some hopes that Kaine would take some bold moves,” said Richard Dieter, head of the D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. “But the political reality is, Virginia is not Maryland. There was a perception that you can’t advance if you oppose the death penalty. He ended up doing as he said he would do.”

By the time he left office in 2010, Kaine had allowed 11 executions, all of them anathema in the eyes of his church. Six of the condemned were black men, an added burden for a politician who sees himself as a racial bridge builder.

On the Sunday morning before leaving for St. Elizabeth, Kaine sat on the enclosed porch of his Richmond home, reflecting on what he called the most “vivid and uncomfortable” part of the job.

“I really struggled with that as governor. I have a moral position against the death penalty,” he said. “But I took an oath of office to uphold it. Following an oath of office is also a moral obligation.”

He looked out the window at the early morning light, remembering the dozen thick clemency files that crossed his desk, his decision on each meaning life or death to some fellow human. In every case but one, it meant death.

He looked back from the window, leaned forward in the leather chair, his face troubled, his eyes moist.

The deal he made with the public was not to block executions. The deal he made with himself was infinitely harder.

“I hope I can give a good accounting of myself on Judgment Day,” he said finally.

A push to run

Kaine had thought that he was done with elected office, with its complexities and compromises. At the end of his term, he made clear that he was headed for private life, maybe a nice college presidency.

Then came word of an opening on Capitol Hill.

“The day [Democratic U.S. Sen.] Jim Webb announced that he was not going to run again, we were clear Tim was not going to run,” his wife said.“He was ready for different things.”

But Kaine, who left office with a 57 percent approval rating, was widely seen as the one Democrat with a chance to hold the seat. The party push started immediately. Webb encouraged him to run, as did Sen. Mark R. Warner (D).

“They had to lobby him pretty hard,” said Terry McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and an unsuccessful candidate in Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2009.

Kaine’s father-in-law, A. Linwood Holton, the former Republican governor of Virginia and his political mentor, advised him to jump in. “I said, “Tim, you’ve got to do this,’ ” recalled Holton, 89.

Virginia Republicans knew Kaine would be a formidable candidate. But they also knew that he could no longer run so easily as an above-the-fray bipartisan mediator.

In 2009, at the request of the White House, Kaine took on one of the most partisan jobs in politics, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He ran the DNC for just over two years and was at the helm during the 2010 midterm elections, which were a disaster for Democrats.

Within the party, Kaine received little blame for the rout. Like any chairman who serves under a sitting president, he took his orders from the White House, and he was seen more as a trusted lieutenant than as a principal strategist. He raised record amounts of money for a midterm election cycle, faithfully trumpeted the Democratic line and soothed the many egos of a fractious party.

But Republicans gleefully refer to him as “Chairman Kaine” and “Obama’s chief cheerleader.” They respond to Kaine ads touting his work “with both parties” with reminders that he ran one of them.

Running the party did allow him to build a national fundraising network that has helped him outraise Allen. The race is one of the tightest and most closely watched in the country, and the outcome could help determine which party controls the Senate.

Politics of updraft

Climbing out of the maroon Ford Expedition for his third factory tour of the day, the candidate-who-wasn’t-going-to-run-again stretched his spine, slipped on his suit jacket and looked around for a hand to shake.

Kaine-for-Senate signs lined a block of downtown Fredericksburg, where the candidate was visiting a company that makes Army robots.

Warner climbed out of the other side of the car. Kaine and the senator are old friends. They have known each other since law school and were ticket-mates when Warner was elected governor in 2002.

As Warner kicked the treads of a diesel robot, Kaine went straight to the back of the crowd, startling a group of technicians who thought they were well out of the center of VIP action.

“Hi, I’m Tim,” he said to each in turn, shaking their hands.

On the campaign trail — and this was his 89th workplace forum in 17 months — Kaine has the resting pulse of a candidate who has never lost an election. And he gives the impression that he wouldn’t be devastated if he did.

“It will be what it is,” he said.

A kind of ease has characterized Kaine’s entire political career. His have been the politics of updraft, at nearly every juncture perfectly picking his moment — and his patrons.

He was elevated from City Council member to mayor of Richmond as the consensus candidate of his colleagues on the racially divided body (the mayor was picked by the council in those days, but the office has since become one that is filled by popular election). He made the jump to statewide politics in 2001 when the front-runner for the lieutenant governor’s slot, state Sen. Emily Couric (yes, Katie’s sister), who had cancer, dropped out and anointed Kaine in her stead. And he easily ascended into the governor’s job as the successor to the popular Warner, who campaigned for him then as now.

“When you run against Tim Kaine, you have to factor into your calculations that he is going to be lucky,” said Paul Goldman, a longtime Democratic operative in the state. “So many elections are decided by timing, and Tim has managed to run in fortunate times again and again.”

To Virginia Republicans, Kaine’s smooth rise can rankle, the nice-guy persona can feel like Teflon. They say Kaine’s record as governor was undistinguished. He failed to deliver on promises to reform transportation funding. His last budget, including a proposed increase in income taxes, went down without a single Democratic vote.

Kaine seldom talks about his term in office without placing it in the context of the “worst national recession in 70 years.” He hammers the point that he oversaw deep cuts and balanced the budget.

“That drives me crazy,” said Rep. H. Morgan Griffith, who was majority leader in the state House of Delegates during Kaine’s term and is now a Republican congressman from southwestern Virginia. “The budget has to be balanced by law, and the only reason he didn’t raise taxes is because House Republicans fought him every step of the way.”

But not even his enemies make much of an attempt to demonize Kaine. “Yeah,” Griffith acknowledged, “he’s a really nice guy.”

Death penalty dilemma

Kaine was initially written off as too liberal for statewide office. His Republican gubernatorial opponent, former Virginia attorney general Jerry Kilgore, blasted him for representing death row inmates as a Richmond civil rights lawyer.

His most notorious client was Richard Lee Whitley, convicted of cutting the throat of a Fairfax County widow. On the day he watched Whitley being led to the electric chair, Kaine told reporters: “Murder is wrong in the gulag, in Afghanistan, in Soweto, in the mountains of Guatemala, in Fairfax County . . . and even the Spring Street Penitentiary.”

“That was emotionally devastating for both of us,” said his former law partner Thomas Wolf, who helped with the Whitley case. “I know when he was running for governor he was urged to change his position on the death penalty. He said, ‘No, that wouldn’t be honest.’ ”

Instead Kaine took his feelings straight to voters, casting his opposition to both capital punishment and abortion as strict articles of Catholic faith. But he emphatically pledged that he would uphold laws permitting both.

Kaine’s pitch neutralized both issues, and made him a hero to Democrats fighting to win back Bible voters. But his victory also set him up with a case of moral self-doubt that haunts him still.

Abortion was easier. Kaine has straddled the issue, as many Democrats do, by abhorring abortion but leaving the decision up to each woman. Unlike capital punishment, abortion cases don’t routinely land on a governor’s desk.

The clemency reviews took place in a small conference room off the governor’s main office. Kaine’s chief counsel, Larry Roberts, went over the voluminous file he had assembled, which included details of the crime, the impact on victims’ families, the pleas for mercy for the condemned.

“Those were very somber sessions,” said Wayne Turnage, Kaine’s chief of staff at the time. “The governor had to put his personal feelings aside.”

Only once did Kaine grant a commutation, to an inmate with serious mental incapacities. He did veto every attempt to expand the death penalty to additional crimes in Virginia. Otherwise, he stood aside.

The executions, nine by lethal injection and two by electric chair, took place at night. Kaine would spend each execution in his office, with an open phone line to the death chamber.

“It was awful,” Turnage recalled. “He would be very, very emotional on those nights.”

A moral compass

Kaine’s devout Catholicism can be traced to his suburban childhood in the Kansas City, Mo., area, where his father owned a metalworking shop. He went to a Jesuit boarding school, attended Mass most mornings and envisioned a career in law, not politics.

After a year at Harvard Law School, he signed up to work at a Honduran mission he had visited during high school.

“He will tell you that Honduras made him who he is,” said his mother, Kathleen.

The Rev. Patricio Wade, 79, still working in Honduras, remembers Kaine as wide-eyed at his first brush with overwhelming poverty. “Tim saw a system where very few people dominated and had all the money and power,” the priest said by cellphone.

Kaine said the experience was searing. And when he returned to law school, he met in Holton a kindred soul.

“Anne and I both decided early on that reconciliation would be the mission of our lives,” Kaine said.

It was Holton who found St. Elizabeth back when, as an engaged couple, they were choosing between her home town of Richmond and his Kansas City. Finding a Catholic church that could shake the sacristy with Baptist-style gospel music was all “part of my wooing Tim to Richmond,” she said.

When they attended church this month, St. E’s gospel choir let it rip with “To My Father’s House” as Kaine clapped and sang along from his pew near the rear. He was a tenor with the choir for 14 years, until his entry into politics meant he couldn’t make Wednesday night rehearsals.

“No one would ever mistake me for Al Green,” he said with a laugh. “But I do love to sing.”

A few minutes later, at a look from the choir director, Kaine walked up to the piano and belted out the solo on “Taste and See the Purpose of the Lord” as parishioners filed by for communion.

When he first appeared on a ballot in 1994, Kaine’s pedigree was still an odd one for the Old Dominion: a white singer in a black choir and a Catholic civil rights lawyer who represented death row clients and hailed “new Americans” as economic saviors.

But Virginia caught up with Kaine’s tastes. Population and diversity explosions in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads have fueled his ascent.

On the stump, Kaine promotes his rainbow view of “the New Virginia” as an economic plank, pushing immigration as a boon to the economy.

“As Virginia becomes more open, it’s becoming a talent magnet,” he told a group of businesswomen in Herndon last month, many of them born in India and Latin America. “Immigration reform is fundamentally about wanting to be the most talented place on Earth.”

His opponent, George Allen, a former senator and governor, is earnestly trying to shed his image as a practitioner of exclusionary politics. Allen’s campaign for reelection to the Senate in 2006 was seriously damaged by a taunt he hurled at a young Indian American campaign operative for Webb, then the Democratic challenger.

Kaine regularly defends Allen’s disastrous “macaca” outburst by saying that anyone can make an off-the-cuff mistake. But then he deftly slips in the knife, condemning “the sentiment behind it.”

“We know that a lot of politics in this state over our time has been one that separated people into real Virginians or other Virginians,” Kaine said during a debate with Allen last month. “We need more bridge builders.”

He seems comfortable coming out of a political retirement that lasted only months. He seems undaunted, in daylight hours, by the moral sleight of hand required of politicians. Successful politicians, anyway.

Down in Honduras, Wade hadn’t heard that his former young missionary was running for the U.S. Senate.

“That’s fine, that’s fine,” said Wade, who was recovering in a hospital from a bout of bronchitis. “Tell him I’m still a registered Democrat in Oklahoma.”

He paused to cough. “To be a politician, you have to have to have strong morals. Tell him that he needs to stay faithful to the principles of justice.”