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Does Kaine make sense on Obama ticket?

Analysis by Chris Graham

The talk about Tim Kaine being on Barack Obama’s VP short list is no accident. Just look at the timing. That’s what has Christopher Newport University political-science professor Quentin Kidd thinking there’s more to the firestorm of coverage on this short-list news than maybe meets the eye.

“There are two reasons you pick a vice-presidential candidate. One is to correct a weakness, and the other is to strengthen a perceived strength,” Kidd told me this morning. “I would imagine that if Tim Kaine is picked, it’s because Barack Obama is pursuing a strengthen-my-strengths route as opposed to a cover-my-weaknesses path. Barack Obama represents a new, fresh, not-of-Washington perspective, and if Obama is going to push that message, if he feels confident enough to go forward with that message, Tim Kaine strengthens that message.”

University of Mary Washington political-science professor Stephen Farnsworth agrees with Kidd on the point about the timing of what appears to be a generated media speculation on an Obama-Kaine alliance. We wouldn’t be having this discussion if the Obama team hadn’t made a key internal decision.

“The timing of this is interesting coming on the heels of his trip last week,” Farnsworth said, referring to Obama’s trip to the Middle East and Europe that gave him a substantial if brief boost in the national polls, and seemed to answer the question that had been vexing the Yes, We Can! effort regarding his national-security bona fides. To be floating Kaine’s name out into the mainstream media for discussion is a likely indicator that the Obama inner circle feels that it won’t have to shore up the national-security flank by selecting, say, Sam Nunn or Bill Richardson or Joe Biden as a running mate.

“With Tim Kaine, we’re talking about somebody who really represents what Obama is saying in terms of a break from the Washington politics of the past. This is someone who has been mayor, lieutenant governor and governor, and has been very connected to hands-on issues in local and state governments. That is a big advantage, it seems to me,” Farnsworth said.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t critics of a Kaine selection out there. I’ve seen and heard comments from Republican friends in the past couple of days that indicate that they think the John McCain campaign could try to spin the Washington-outsider approach of Obama to heighten the focus on the Washington inexperience of Obama, who has served in the United States Senate for three and a half years after serving in the Illinois state legislature for eight years, and Kaine, who has held state office in Virginia for six years after eight years on Richmond City Council.

And then there are the questions that could be raised by Democrats themselves about Kaine’s low profile outside of Virginia, where recent public-opinion polls at least have been registering his popularity as being on a par with the wildly popular former governor and ’08 U.S. Senate candidate Mark Warner.

“Kaine isn’t a national figure. He’s known in Virginia, but not really anywhere else. I would say that he lacks the national identity that a lot of vice-presidential candidates have had in the past,” Farnsworth said. Kidd counters, though, by pointing out that being a relative unknown isn’t necessarily an automatic negative in this instance. “There are two sides to being relatively unknown. One side is voters saying, Well, we don’t know anything about him, how could he pick somebody like that? The other side to that is, Boy, we don’t know about him, I’m really interested, I’m really curious, and things that I’m reading today are interesting, and I want to know more,” Kidd said.

In that context, then, one could consider Kaine an open tableau waiting for his closeup on the national stage. And you have to assume that he’s being viewed favorably by Virginia voters for a reason, right?

“I can’t think of anything negative that people could say about Tim Kaine,” Kidd said. “He’s a middle-class kid who is smart, he’s a religious person, committed several years of his life to missionary work, has a strong social-consciousness streak, has not been caught up, as far as I know, in any big scandals. So by picking somebody like Tim Kaine, Barack Obama might also have the opportunity to introduce Tim Kaine to the nation in a way that’s very positive and in a way that reinforces the Obama message, which is change, which is optimism.”

Bottom line – Farnsworth sees Obama going in one of two directions, neither involving Kaine. Farnsworth thinks the favorites for the second spot on the Obama ticket are Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, who would bone up the ticket’s foreign-policy credentials, or Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a friend of Obama nomination rival Hillary Clinton who could play a key role in vote-rich Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Kidd is there with me in thinking that a Kaine selection seems to be making the most sense right now.

“Several months ago, I would have said that of the three names that we kept hearing about from Virginia – Jim Webb, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine – that Tim Kaine was probably third on that list. But I’ve had a conversion here. The more I think about Tim Kaine, the more I realize that Tim Kaine is a really good pick for Barack Obama,” Kidd said.


More on the Kaine VP talk

What does a Kaine vice-presidential candidacy mean to the ’09 elections in Virginia? We’ll address that issue in tomorrow’s AFP.

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