Tim Kaine, C, and his wife Anne Holton are long-time members of the predominantly African American St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Richmond, Va. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

When Timothy M. Kaine took his message of bipartisanship to the crowd gathered at the Virginia NAACP’s annual convention, the crowd nodded in agreement as the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate criticized an obstructionist Congress working against the country’s first black president.

“Watching people decide they would like to proclaim [that] their success would be making the president not successful, I just decided to get in and run,” Kaine told the audience last month. “I do know how to work together with all kinds of people.”

Kaine spoke to the crowd for nearly half an hour in his opponent’s absence, although both candidates were invited.

The following day, GOP candidate George Allen showed up at the convention in Fredericksburg, working the crowd at a sit-down dinner.

“We didn’t allow him to speak, but we acknowledged his presence,” said King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia State Conference NAACP. “He worked the room. If he didn’t touch hands with 200 people there, I’m a liar.”

With African Americans making up 20 percent of the population and electorate in the commonwealth — its largest minority voting group — the black vote will factor significantly into the Nov. 6 election, including the tight race between Kaine and Allen. Observers say Kaine’s history with black voters in Virginia should serve him well Tuesday — perhaps better than President Obama.

“Reaching out to African Americans, especially in the days when African Americans were having a hard time here . . . that was like a moral imperative for him,” said David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “He’s one of the politicians in Virginia who African Americans just really, genuinely like.”

Black voter turnout was
record-high in 2008, and Democrats are hoping to match that level again, although it is unclear whether that will happen.

A Washington Post poll of Virginia voters released this week showed Kaine winning 86 percent of African American likely voters, compared to 10 percent for Allen. But the poll also showed that 86 percent of African American voters polled said they are “very enthusiastic” about supporting the president, compared to 60 percent who have the same level of enthusiasm about supporting Kaine.

On the campaign trail, Kaine has traded on his record as a civil rights attorney, mayor of a diverse Richmond and early surrogate of Obama in hopes that such credentials will translate into support from black voters on Election Day.

Also, ads making the case for why African Americans should vote for Kaine run constantly on urban radio and are also in black newspapers. Kaine has held forums with black business owners, ministers and community leaders. Campaign spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine pointed out that Kaine increased state contracts to minority-owned businesses as governor.

“Governor Kaine is committed to strengthening economic opportunities for all Virginians. As Governor, he . . . worked to make sure Virginia maintained a strong economy even during the worst recession since the Great Depression. He’s proud to have the endorsement of several African American publications and community organizations in this campaign.”

While Allen enjoyed some black support as governor and during his previous term as senator, that support was weakened after he used a slur against an Indian American man who was working for his opponent at a campaign event. His reputation was further damaged amid reports that he displayed a Confederate flag in his home and a noose in his law office, and it has not since recovered, said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University specializing in Southern politics.

“He’s got relationships in the black community that go back a long way,” Kidd said. “But Allen’s comments and the things that came out post-‘macaca’ hurt him a little bit. His image in the black community took a beating.”

In a statement Friday, his campaign said Allen “believes that freedom and equal opportunity are the right of every American regardless of background.”

“He’s proud of his record as Governor and Senator in establishing empowering education policies, including funding for upgraded technology for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and making a college education accessible to more young people by freezing tuition,” spokeswoman Emily Davis said in the statement. “George Allen’s record of 300,000 net new Virginia jobs resonates with African-American voters who have been disproportionately hurt by job losses in this economy.”