LEESBURG, Va. — Democrat Tim Kaine talks a lot about Republicans – the ones in his family, the ones he's worked with and the ones he hopes will help him bridge the caustic political divide if he's elected to the U.S. Senate.
"We can't have a functioning nation with a dysfunctional legislative branch," the former Democratic Party chairman says at a recent campaign stop. "John Warner said something to me: `It's not sick-building syndrome, it's not in the water supply. It's in the character and the inclination of the people who walk in there every day.' The only way it will change is if we put in people who have a different set of character and inclinations."
Kaine's words draw loud applause from the seniors at Leisure World in this northern Virginia suburb, most of them Democrats, a few wearing "Grandma for Obama" buttons.
Former Virginia Sen. Warner isn't the only Republican whom Kaine mentions in his hour-long question-and-answer session on budgets, health care and education. He cites President Dwight Eisenhower, praises Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and mentions that his hero is his father-in-law – Linwood Holton, who in 1970 was Virginia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
A few days later, at a retirement community near Fort Belvoir, Republican candidate George Allen eagerly recounts stories of successful bipartisanship from his days in the state legislature and talks of being "united regardless of party or where we live." The former senator ticks off the names of Democrats he worked with – Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ron Wyden – and the ones he's certain would join forces with him on energy – Mary Landrieu, Joe Manchin, perhaps Mark Begich.
"I hope to win not because someone is so much against the other side. There's obviously differences. That's to be expected in a representative democracy. Not everyone has the same opinion. ... Then you have civil engagement where you discuss those ideas. Civil engagement is the best approach to create more jobs, better security, whatever the issue may be and let the people decide," Allen says.
Kaine and Allen – two former governors locked in an excruciatingly close race for Senate – purposely are talking up cooperation. It's not only recognition of the electorate's dissatisfaction with months of Washington vitriol and gridlock, it's a political necessity in an evenly divided state as they pitch to the few remaining independent voters.
Yes, Virginia is the decider this year, a genuine swing state that holds an outsized role in determining the presidency and control of the Senate. It is one of roughly a dozen battleground states that could tip the election to either President Barack Obama or Republican Mitt Romney. It also is one of about a dozen Senate races that could decide who's in charge on Capitol Hill in January.
Polls have shown Kaine, 54, the former Richmond mayor and lieutenant governor, and Allen, 60, namesake son of the legendary Washington Redskins coach, essentially tied for much of the year. Two new polls out this week gave Kaine a slight advantage. The difference on Election Day could be fewer than 10,000 votes. In 2006, Democrat Jim Webb edged out Allen by just under 9,000 votes out of 2.3 million cast.
"Our country was formed on compromise," said Preston Hewitt, 62, a Republican who heard Kaine talk to workers at the Raging Wire data centers in Ashburn, Va., and is considering backing the Democrat.
"That's the way it should be," said Monique Baird, 81, an Allen supporter at the retirement home near Fort Belvoir who faulted President Barack Obama for divisive politics and a move toward socialism.
In the campaign's final seven weeks, Kaine and Allen have three debates – one Thursday, another Oct. 8 and the last one at Virginia Tech on Oct. 18.
"You've gone through a few rendezvouses with destiny," Allen tells the World War II veterans and other military retirees, "but as far as younger generations, for all of us, this is our time for choosing, or as my father would say, `The future is now.' That future is going to get decided on November 6."
All year, roughly a dozen Senate races have been fiercely competitive as Democrats fight to hold onto their slim majority – 51-47 plus two independents who caucus with the party – while defending 23 seats to the GOP's 10. Republicans need a net gain of four seats to grab control.
Some races have receded in the final stretch – New Mexico looks more certain for Democrats, Arizona for Republicans. The GOP establishment abandoned Missouri after Rep. Todd Akin's comments about pregnancy and "legitimate" rape. Polls suggest that once vulnerable Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill will hold the seat.
At the same time, Republicans are more upbeat about keeping the Maine seat of retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe, with both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spending money on ads in the state. The three-way race pits independent Angus King, the former governor who is likely to side with Democrats if elected, against Republican Charlie Summers and Democrat Cynthia Dill.
The GOP also sees an opening in Democratic-leaning Connecticut where Rep. Chris Murphy, who doesn't have much statewide name recognition, has struggled against Republican Linda McMahon, the professional wrestling executive who has focused on her business background in her second consecutive bid for the Senate.
Other core contests for deciding which party will run the Senate are in Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Dakota and to a lesser extent Florida and Hawaii. Republicans are counting on winning the Nebraska seat despite former Sen. Bob Kerrey's efforts to keep it in the Democratic column. Democrats are energized about improving prospects in Indiana, where Rep. Joe Donnelly is locked in a close race with Richard Mourdock, who isn't getting much help from the man he defeated in the GOP primary – six-term Sen. Richard Lugar.
And then there's Virginia, where the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and other groups have pummeled Kaine since the early part of the year with some $10 million in negative ads. Crossroads launched three commercials last week that criticize the Democrat, including one that accuses him of "questionable judgment" for backing the same budget deal last August that President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans, including vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, supported.
Kaine held off on his advertising until Aug. 21, after the Summer Olympics, then unveiled the first round of $4.5 million in commercials, including one in which he casts himself as more of a fiscal conservative than his rival with cuts to his own pay and a balanced state budget.
"We thought Virginia wouldn't want negative and they wouldn't want it too early," Kaine told the Leesburg audience, drawing applause when he points out that the millions of ads against him had little impact on the polls.
The election will determine whether Kaine's strategy of waiting until the final stretch was a smart move or a response that came too late.
Allen, in his ads, focuses on his blueprint for America, highlighting his emphasis on energy, tax reduction, job creation and avoiding more defense cuts.
The Republican is hoping to revive a political career that once had him mentioned in the GOP lineup for 2008 presidential candidates. It all ended in a single moment – the "macaca moment" – when Allen used the term, considered an ethnic slur, to describe a Democratic campaign volunteer of Indian ancestry in 2006. Weeks later, he lost to Webb.
"We lost very narrowly and it's a humbling experience," Allen says. "You do learn sometimes more from losing than you do from winning."
Kaine points out that he's seven-for-seven in elections but has never gotten more than 53 percent of the vote. "I'm like the Maalox candidate," he tells the seniors in Leesburg.
Obama's rise or fall in Virginia will go a long way to determining Kaine's fate. The Democrat says he doesn't always agree with the president. Kaine would let the Bush-era tax cuts expire for those making $500,000 or more compared with the president's $250,000 threshold. Kaine disagrees with Obama clean-energy initiatives, and in one ad takes a helicopter ride over a Virginia hybrid energy coal plant in Wise County.
"I don't distance myself from the president. I want him to be re-elected. I think he deserves to be re-elected but we don't agree on everything, so when we don't I point it out," Kaine said in an interview, days before polls show Obama with a slight lead in the state.
Virginia has changed significantly since Allen won in 2000. The population stands at 8.1 million, with 19.8 percent African-American and 8.2 percent Hispanic. The suburbs and exurbs stretching across northern Virginia account for 30 percent of the population, Kaine often points out.
The unemployment rate stands at 5.9 percent, well below the national average, thanks to jobs in places like Loudoun County, dubbed the "fiber optic capital of the country" and Silicon Valley east.
The Old Dominion stands as the new Dominion.