RICHMOND, Va. -- The dominant figure in a Virginia Senate race that could determine the direction of Congress next year is President Barack Obama even though both candidates are former governors well-known to voters.
Republican George Allen is trying to redeem his political career and win back the Senate seat he lost six years ago in a chaotic, slur-stained campaign against Democrat Jim Webb. His simple strategy: If Obama falls, Democrat Tim Kaine falls with him.
Kaine was Obama's hand-picked chairman of the Democratic National Committee for two years. Their fates in November are linked in a state that both parties consider critical to winning the White House and controlling the Senate.
That makes Virginia the perfect spending target for big-spending political groups on each party's side, a chance to bag two opponents at once using the same dollars. As go Obama and Republican Mitt Romney in the president race, so go Kane and Allen.
Allen denies Kaine even the Virginia courtesy of addressing those who've held their office as "governor," calling him instead "Chairman Kaine," a derisive reference to his two years as head of the Democratic Party, one of them during his final year as governor. An Allen billboard in rural areas is even blunter: "Obama's senator, not Virginia's."
"Look, for a quarter of his term as governor, he took on the most partisan job in our country," Allen said in a telephone interview. "He was President Obama's hand-picked chairman, and he's been an advocate for all the significant agenda items of the Obama administration."
Kaine has never tried to disown Obama, though they disagree on several issues. He chafes at assertions by Allen and others that the two are joined at the hip.
"It is not surprising that George is doing that," Kaine said in a telephone interview. "The last thing George wants to do is talk about the fact that he was a U.S. senator and he has a record as a U.S. senator and what that record was."
Obama's drop in popularity over his health care law, stimulus package and clean-air initiatives despised by Virginia's coal industry have made the link to the president tougher for Kaine.
"Everyone has a fantasy," said Virginia-based Republican strategist Christopher J. LaCivita. "Tim Kaine's fantasy is not to be associated with Barack Obama."
Tying Kaine to Obama is a good Republican strategy unless Romney flops in Virginia, said Steve Jarding of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Polling by Quinnipiac University in early June showed Obama with a 5 percentage point lead over Romney in Virginia and Kaine and Allen deadlocked.
"If Obama loses big, there's probably no way Kaine can win, and vice versa – if Obama wins big, there's probably no way George Allen can win," said Jarding, a Democratic consultant.
Kaine's and Obama's hopes hinge largely on big turnouts by women and minorities. One-fifth of Virginia's electorate is black, and among that group, 9 out of 10 voted for Obama in 2008. Democrats hold an advantage among female voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll of Virginia in June. Obama led Romney by 16 percentage points among women, and Kaine led Allen by 6 points.