- Associated Press - Monday, March 14, 2011

RICHMOND, Va. | Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine told a college class he’s likely to run for a Senate seat next year, a party spokesman said Monday.

The comment — to an undergraduate leadership course taught through the University of Richmond — is the most definitive statement yet from the former Virginia governor about the upcoming race for the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Webb, which Democrats are seeking to hold in next year’s elections.

The former governor’s offhand reply to a student’s question about his plans rocked Virginia politics and surprised national Democratic operatives and Mr. Kaine’s closest advisers.

DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse provided first official word of Mr. Kaine’s remarks in a terse, unpunctuated announcement posted on Twitter around 1:30 p.m. Mr. Kaine “did not tell law school class he was running, said likely which has been reported. No final decision pending other commitments,” Mr. Woodhouse tweeted.

Mr. Woodhouse followed moments later with an official statement that Mr. Kaine would consult further with President Obama, who appointed him head of the national party. It also said Mr. Kaine would honor his DNC travel and fundraising commitments “at least through the end of the month.”

Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said Mr. Kaine got off to a stumbling start should he run.

“It suggests a campaign that doesn’t know what it’s doing,” he said, adding it also disappoints potential donors.

It even caught some longtime aides and confidants unaware, forcing the DNC to scramble on the issue. The party insisted that Mr. Kaine had said nothing new.

Word from Mr. Kaine’s class spread quickly after a student phoned a news-talk radio station, WINA in Charlottesville. The station’s report, pegged only to a caller identified as Greg, raced across Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

Dismayed DNC officials promptly began damage control. Requests through the party to speak to Mr. Kaine were denied.

“Governor Kaine told his law school class today what is already widely known, which is that he is increasingly likely to run,” DNC’s statement said initially.

Mr. Kaine had told a Democratic gathering in Roanoke that he was considering a possible run, and pundits had been speculating that it appeared increasingly likely Mr. Kaine would enter the race. But Mr. Kaine had not publicly characterized the likelihood of a candidacy until Monday.

Virginia’s race will be among the nation’s most intensely watched.