At last year's 63rd Shad Planking, Virginia's annual spring confab for politicos and potential candidates to see and be seen, Gov. Bob McDonnell joked that Tim Kaine and George Allen were "two guys running for a job that neither one of them really wants. What a battle that's going to be."
The quip was all in good fun — but there was likely some truth behind it. Mr. Kaine has acknowledged that he never thought he would be running for elected office again after serving his single term as governor from 2006 to 2010, and Mr. Allen — also a former governor, who served in the U.S. Senate from 2001 to 2007 — remarked during a debate with challenger Jim Webb in 2006 that the chamber moves "at the pace of a wounded sea slug."
But what a difference nearly two years of campaigning, more than $43 million in outside spending, and control of the U.S. Senate can make.
The two men have attended scores of rallies and roundtables and have talked with seniors, women, Hispanics, young voters and any number of other blocs into which pollsters and pundits have sliced and diced the electorate this year — all for a chance to serve in arguably the most dysfunctional institution in modern American politics.
Mr. Allen, a Republican, recently fired up party volunteers in Sterling, where he was asked about his decision to run for Senate.
"Well, there was a lot of encouragement from people," he said. "However, beyond encouragement is, I saw how every vote matters in the United States Senate. Virginia's Senate seat will determine who's in the majority in the Senate — whether it continues the way it is, or whether we get common-sense conservative leadership — and I felt that with my experiences, ideas, [I've] come back renewed and revitalized with a greater resolve to get this country moving in the right direction."
Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, had a much more public struggle with his decision to run after the not entirely surprising announcement by Mr. Webb in February that he would not seek a second term.
The decision included a conversation with the country's commander in chief, who just happened to have hand-picked Mr. Kaine to serve as chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2009.
"[A]s Ann and I and the kids talked about it, I guess what we kind of decided is, 'What's the problem right now in Congress?'" Mr. Kaine said last week after speaking in Fredericksburg at the state convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"I felt like —just like I was governor in the worst recession in 75 years, and I had to make a lot of hard decisions —I had preparation that enabled me to do it. I think my own mixture of strengths and weaknesses is sort of a good mixture of what's needed right now," he said. "Is it the mixture that would be needed 20 years from now or 20 years ago? It's needed right now. We've got to have people who can make hard decisions and work together, and, once I thought about it that way, the prospect of standing on the sidelines -- I felt like if I did, I wouldn't be able to look myself in the mirror."
High-stakes battleground state
With a combined $28 million in contributions to the candidates' campaigns and more than $43 million in outside spending, the race is among the costliest in the nation.
The stakes couldn't be higher. An Allen win, after the retirement of Mr. Webb, a Democrat, would push Republicans one seat closer to winning the Senate, which Democrats, along with two nominal independents, currently control 53-47. Aside from an outlying poll here or there, Mr. Kaine and Mr. Allen essentially have remained within the margin of error over the past year.
If either candidate had any trepidation before jumping into the race, it's certainly not apparent with less than a week to go until Election Day.
"If Tim Kaine doesn't want it, it isn't apparent to me right now," said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University.
Mr. Allen, the namesake of the legendary Washington Redskins coach, has described his 2006 loss to Mr. Webb as a "humbling experience" and has said it has given him time to learn and reflect.
"George Allen never saw himself in this position — having to reclaim his Senate seat," said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. "I think George Allen will live and breathe political campaigns and political ambition as far as he can take it. It seems less likely that he could call being governor and senator the capstone of a political career."
'This is what matters'
Mr. Allen has worked feverishly throughout the campaign to tie Mr. Kaine to President Obama — who plans yet another campaign stop Saturday in the Old Dominion, to which he traveled on the first official day of his re-election bid.
"We know we want a better direction for our country — whether it's this health care tax law, whether it's productive energy policy, whether it is the sequestration deal, which is just going to be so devastating to Virginia jobs — people want to see leadership in Washington that empowers individuals and small businesses to grow and thrive and create jobs," Mr. Allen said.
Mr. Kaine has staked out subtle differences with Mr. Obama on a number of issues, such as letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire on income above $500,000 rather than Mr. Obama's $250,000 threshold.
"Tim Kaine and Barack Obama haven't been dancing the salsa together," Mr. Kidd said. "They've been dancing something more formal with some more space between them."
But Mr. Kaine is also quick to defend his broader support of the president and realizes his fate will be linked, at least in part, to how Mr. Obama performs in Virginia, where he remains neck and neck with Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
"Both Tim Kaine and George Allen are pretty affected by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney," Mr. Kaine said. "[But] there are going to be some ticket splits. Just because Virginians know us pretty well, turnout is important, but continuing to persuade the last undecideds also is something I know we're both really focused on."
Mr. Allen has been employing a simple trope in his pitch to voters in recent weeks. Pay taxes? You should be on our side. Use electricity? You're on our side. Drive a car and need some relief at the pump? Hop aboard. He clearly relishes being out on the trail, talking to people, listening to their stories and sympathizing with their concerns when he can.
"And, by the way, a place like Loudoun County — that matters a lot," he said to the Sterling volunteers about gas prices. "As you all know, folks who live here don't always work here. They drive long distances to and from work, or just carrying your kids around to activities. Our family lives in Mount Vernon. We play Loudoun County girls lacrosse teams, and it's a project to get to Leesburg for a lacrosse game —north of Leesburg."
Chris Saxman, a former Republican state delegate who represented Augusta County, said that personal touch is what makes the difference with voters — which could turn out to be a percentage point or two in this case.
"The down-ticket guys have to expect that their base is going to turn out — no question," he said. "But you've got to get out and go for the other guys' votes. All politics is personal. You have to give voters a reason to vote for you. You've got to reach into their hearts and say, 'This is what matters to me.'"
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