- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Republican George Allen clinched his party’s Senate nomination in Virginia on Tuesday, setting up an all-out slugfest with Democrat Tim Kaine in what will undoubtedly be one of the nation’s most consequential, closely-watched, and expensive races this year.

The race between Mr. Kaine and Mr. Allen features two candidates who are popular within their parties, well known to Virginians and have access to prodigious amounts of cash. The men have been locked in a dead heat in virtually every major poll conducted since the race began in the spring of 2011.

The two squared off in an early debate in December in Richmond in which an uncharacteristically aggressive Mr. Kaine accused Mr. Allen of employing divisive and bullying rhetoric.

While insisting he was not looking past the GOP primary contest to the general election in the fall, Mr. Allen nevertheless campaigned against Mr. Kaine and President Obama throughout the primary season. Mr. Allen laid the blame for the current state of the economy at the feet of Mr. Obama’s economic and regulatory policies and Washington gridlock.

“The reason I got off the sidelines and into the fight is I look at 2012 as a pivotal time in our country’s history,” he said Tuesday in between greeting voters at the Greenspring retirement community in Springfield. “People look at, ‘How would common sense conservatives take over from Harry Reid’s obstructionist approach in the U.S. Senate?’ Well, Virginia’s key to it — same in the presidential race. No one can see getting elected president without carrying Virginia.”

Mr. Kaine on Tuesday also cited the economy as a key campaign issue but argued that Mr. Allen and Republicans were responsible for a sluggish recovery.

He said the race is a question of whether voters want to embrace the policies that led to the current financial crisis — as he argues Mr. Allen does — or strike a new path.

“I think the sharpest distinction right now is we’ve got to put people in the Senate who’ve shown they have a backbone to make some of these hard spending decisions,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve had to do, and he hasn’t.”

Mr. Allen, who is seeking to recapture the seat he lost to retiring Democratic Sen. Jim Webb in 2006, appeared at ease Tuesday moving among the voters at polling places in Northern Virginia. He decisively defeated tea party candidate Jamie Radtke, Delegate Robert G. Marshall and Chesapeake Bishop E.W. Jackson in a low-turnout contest to earn the November showdown with Mr. Kaine.

In three debates across the state, Mr. Allen shrugged off attacks from his opponents, relying on his financial advantage and name recognition to stay above the fray and secure the nomination. With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. Allen had received 65 percent of the vote, compared to 23 percent for Ms. Radtke, 7 percent for Mr. Marshall, and 5 percent for Mr. Jackson, according to unofficial results.

Democrats hold an effective 53-47 advantage in the Senate, and have to defend many more seats in November than do Republicans, so the stakes for both parties in the Old Dominion couldn’t be higher.

Paul Goldman, a longtime Democratic strategist, said Mr. Allen and Mr. Kaine have run effective campaigns thus far — each, necessarily, in their own unique ways.

Mr. Allen has remarkably rehabilitated his own image and style after a stunning 2006 loss and worked to tie Mr. Kaine to Mr. Obama and his policies. Mr. Allen said he’s heard complaints on the campaign trail from all sorts of people in the medical community who oppose Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul — which, he is quick to point out, Mr. Kaine lauded as a “great achievement.”

While Mr. Kaine has not shied away from his tenure as Mr. Obama’s hand-picked chairman of the Democratic National Committee — and his frequent and spirited defense of the president — he has spent more time discussing his record as governor. Mr. Kaine on the campaign trail has emphasized his investments in pre-K programs or the billions of dollars he cut from the budget as he shepherded the state through the tough fiscal times.

“What Kaine is trying to do is make people view him as a Virginia Democrat, not a national Democrat,” said Paul Goldman, a longtime Democratic strategist. “Kaine’s still his own man, but I think he realizes the challenges that he faces, so I think they’ve been smart in trying to re-establish Kaine as a Virginia governor and Virginia lieutenant governor.”

Mr. Goldman said both men have run effective campaigns thus far — each, necessarily, in their own unique ways. He recalled being puzzled when Mr. Allen showed up to appear with him on an education panel in the Richmond area a few years ago, when he had all but announced he would be running in 2012.

“I didn’t appreciate the importance of what he was doing,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, you’re running for Senate and you’re going to drive 4 1/2 hours to talk to a handful of people?’”

But, Mr. Goldman later realized that was exactly what Mr. Allen needed at the time.

“He was basically saying, ‘I’ve been governor, I’ve been senator, but I’ll go anywhere and talk to anyone … even if I have to drive myself,’” he said. “Something very few politicians who have been big-shots have done. Now, I’m thinking that proved that he was hungry. I think he needed to do that.”

Both sides are counting on voters forgetting — or at least not fixating on — portions of their respective records. Mr. Allen has been dinged for votes he took to increase the debt ceiling and to raise his salary when he served in the Senate, and Mr. Kaine has faced the criticism for the amount of time he spent conducting DNC business during his last year as Virginia governor.

To some extent, however, their fate will be out of their own hands, as Mr. Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney set their sights on Virginia’s 13 electoral votes up for grabs in November. Mr. Obama became the first Democrat in more than 40 years to carry the state in 2008. He’s hoping to repeat that performance, while Republicans chalk it up as an anomaly, arguing that Mr. Obama’s positive message in 2008 has not translated to his job performance.

“‘Hope and change’ has become ‘division and recession,’” said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a lead surrogate for Mr. Romney. “There’s a lot of rhetoric and very few results out of this administration, and I intend to tell people what the federal policies over the last couple of years have done to Virginia — unfunded mandates, horrible policies for our energy industry.”

“But overall, I think there’s no question the presidential election will drive a lot of voters to the polls,” he continued. “In some measure, certainly, the Allen-Kaine outcome will be determined by how well Romney does in Virginia.”