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Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine this weekend will attend a tribute dinner for ex-Rep. Rick Boucher, keeping himself engaged with Virginia Democrats as he decides whether to run for Senate.
A top Virginia Democrat told Roll Call that Kaine has accepted an invitation to the dinner scheduled for Saturday night in Wytheville. The Southwest Virginia event will pay tribute to the 28-year House career that ended when Boucher was unseated last fall by now-Rep. Morgan Griffith (R).
Kaine began his gubernatorial campaign in 2005 in Southwest Virginia, a critical region for Democrats hoping to win statewide.
Former state party Chairman Dick Cranwell of Roanoke said he believes Kaine will run. He said ex-Sen. George Allen, who is likely to win the Republican party nod despite facing a primary challenge, should not expect an easy race. Cranwell and others believe President Barack Obama, a close friend of Kaine’s who will attempt to win Virginia’s 13 electoral college votes a second time in 2012, would boost the Democratic candidate on the ticket, and vice versa.
“Tim understands how important it is for the president to carry Virginia in this next go around, and he helps with that for sure,” Cranwell said.
Linda DiYorio, a longtime Boucher aide who is helping to organize the 400-person event, pointed out that when Kaine first ran in a Democratic primary to be lieutenant governor in 2001, Boucher was one of the first endorsements he earned.
“He and Congressman Boucher were very close,” she told Roll Call. But she doesn’t expect any announcements Saturday since it will be Boucher’s night, even though Democrats are eager to know Kaine’s plans. “Before anybody jumps on any bandwagons, they are waiting to hear from him,” DiYorio said.
(Boucher has been floated as a possible Senate candidate since Democratic Sen. Jim Webb announced he won’t seek a second term. But a source close to the former Congressman said that isn’t likely.)
Kaine’s friends and Virginia associates increasingly think he’s going to go for it. One Democrat said Kaine’s father-in-law, former Republican Gov. Linwood Holton, has been urging him to run. Sen. Mark Warner has mounted a more public pressure campaign, telling Virginia Democrats at their annual dinner last month that he wants his friend to join him in Washington, D.C. Warner also will attend the Boucher dinner Saturday.
Kaine just returned from a family vacation and has spoken privately with some of his advisers, but some of Kaine’s top campaign people in Virginia haven’t yet heard from him either way. Several said they would be willing to help out, even informally, should Kaine jump in.
Several state Democrats have said in local television and radio interviews that Kaine would be their first choice, pointing out he’s never lost a race. Kaine was elected to the city council in Richmond, to be lieutenant governor and to be governor.
State Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D) said in a recent appearance on WAMU radio that it is “no state secret” the Democrats would prefer Kaine over any other candidate, especially since he polls the best in the state.
“It’s a big drop-off from Tim to the next guy,” Saslaw said.
The Senator did not specifically mention ex-Rep. Tom Perriello, a Democrat who was unseated in central Virginia last fall and has said he would consider running if Kaine bows out.
A Democratic strategist familiar with Old Dominion politics told Roll Call that Kaine is “better positioned than anybody else to hold that seat.”
“A lot of people are waiting for him and urging him, not just because he’s the best-known of the potential candidates but because the contrast with George Allen would be incredibly stark and he would run a very, very, very strong campaign,” the strategist said. “There are others that can also make it a race, but Kaine probably starts off in the best spot.”
Should Kaine opt to run, party officials would need to find a new DNC chairman, and Democratic sources told Roll Call those conversations have not started.
But in his new role as executive director of the DNC, Obama’s political lieutenant Patrick Gaspard already has stepped up his involvement since taking the helm. Wednesday he sent his first fundraising e-mail for the party. One source said it would not be a difficult transition should Kaine leave, while another said Obama believes Kaine remains a strong leader in the position.
Kaine suggested as much at the Democratic dinner last month, telling party loyalists that he has enjoyed traveling nationally as a spokesman for the president and noting that he’s in a unique spot to also deliver the Democratic message across the country in Spanish.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has wasted no time attempting to define Kaine as an Obama “cheerleader,” producing a Web video that featured the former governor in a skirt and carrying pompoms.
Roll Call Politics rates this race a Tossup.