Just as Mr. Kaine appeared to be putting some daylight between himself and Mr. Allen in the neck-and-neck race, his statement last week that he would be open to a minimum federal income tax for all Americans has put him on the defensive.
“You just can’t offer off-the-cuff flip remarks about even considering nominal tax increases you just don’t do that,” said a state Democratic operative. “It was an uncharacteristic mistake for Kaine, I think.”
Though Mr. Kaine was not advocating a tax increase and merely said he was open to considering a minimum tax, Republicans gleefully seized on the remark.
One Virginia GOP strategist said they were surprised that the moment came from Mr. Kaine, who has twice won elections to statewide office in Virginia — most recently in the 2005 governor’s election, when he defeated former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore.
“Against Jerry Kilgore, Tim Kaine was actually fairly disciplined,” the strategist said. “No drama, didn’t rock the boat.”
But in comparison to 2006, it is now Mr. Allen who is unfailingly on message — a lesson he learned the hard way in that previous election, when he narrowly lost his seat to Democrat Jim Webb after a series of gaffes, including his now-infamous labeling of an Indian-American Democratic staffer as “macaca,” for which he has repeatedly apologized.
Democratic strategist Paul Goldman, though, questioned whether Mr. Kaine’s tax comment will have much of a shelf life.
“The voters who are going to vote for the guy most likely not to raise taxes under any circumstances [will pick] George Allen,” said Mr. Goldman, who advised former Virginia governors L. Douglas Wilder and Mark R. Warner. “He’s careful what he says. He’s running against ‘Tim Obama.’ It’s been a campaign that’s been very predictable.”
And longtime Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth said the comment itself wasn’t that big a gaffe, but noted that Mr. Kaine was “uncertain in his response.”
The comments came Thursday in response to a question in the first of three stretch-run debate against Mr. Allen as a follow-up on a discussion about GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s comments in which Mr. Romney called the approximately 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes “victims” and dependent on the government, writing them off as people he could never persuade to vote for him.
“I would be open to a proposal that would have some minimum tax level for everyone, but I do insist many of the 47 percent that Gov. Romney was going after pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than he does,” Mr. Kaine said when pressed by moderator David Gregory of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” adding that he found the comments “condescending and divisive.”
“Shouldn’t be news that somebody wants to go into the Senate as willing to start from a position of openness and a dialogue,” Mr. Kaine said after the debate. “I’ve got a track record. When I was governor, we raised the thresholds and took tens of thousands off Virginians, low-income Virginians, off the tax rolls and that was the right thing to do under those circumstances, but we can’t start with non-negotiables.”
Still, both Mr. Allen’s camp and an independent text-message campaign have seized on the comments in recent days.
The Allen campaign launched a new ad Tuesday titled “Accountable,” in which the narrator alludes to “billions in proposed tax increases” during Mr. Kaine’s time as governor and concludes by saying, “Tim Kaine, raising taxes on everyone.”