As Hillary Clinton whittles down her list of potential running mates, the prospect widely believed to be at the top will take the stage with her in his home state of Virginia on Thursday afternoon.
The event at a community center in Annandale, a suburb of Washington, will be a closely watched audition for Sen. Tim Kaine, whose swing state populist appeal, reputation as a steady hand and deep resume of public service would make him a safe choice for Clinton as she seeks to win over wavering voters.
There is little doubt among Democrats that Kaine, a senator, former governor and previous chairman of the Democratic Party, has the qualifications to be vice president, the most important of which is being able to take over the top job at a moment’s notice. The big question that swirls around Kaine is whether he has the charisma that is essential on the campaign trail.
The senator, by his own admission, is a bit “boring.” He lacks the fire-up-the-base energy of fellow prospect Elizabeth Warren. The kind of easy charm displayed by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, another potential running-mate pick for Clinton, also seems harder for Kaine.
But nobody on Clinton’s list would be a safer choice. Kaine’s credentials outstrip those of anyone else she is considering. His knowledge of both domestic and foreign policy and his deal-making prowess have long impressed colleagues, including Barack Obama, who came close to naming Kaine as his running mate in 2008, while he was still Virginia’s governor. Kaine’s big shortcoming that year was a lack of foreign policy experience. He has since established himself as an authority on world affairs through his work on key Senate committees.
A Minnesota native, Kaine moved to Virginia after law school and became a civil rights lawyer, specializing in housing discrimination cases. He eventually ran for city council in Richmond, the state capital, and then became mayor. He was elected governor in 2006 and won praise for his work with Republicans on gun safety legislation in the aftermath of a 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech in which 32 people were killed and 17 wounded.
His campaign, which built a winning coalition of minority voters and white suburbanites, helped reshape the state, once a GOP stronghold, into a Southern beachhead for Obama and potentially could help Clinton overcome her trust deficit with voters in battleground states.
Democratic insiders express confidence that grumbling by progressives that Kaine is too conservative will dissipate once they learn of his record as civil rights crusader and liberal coalition builder.
Kaine will appear with Clinton as she signals a general election strategy that the Virginia senator is particularly well suited to help her carry out. At a time of deep division in the country, the Clinton campaign is playing to voter uneasiness with Donald Trump’s incendiary campaign proposals, schoolyard taunts and self-absorption, questioning whether he is capable of uniting the country.
Clinton acknowledges her own shortcomings in that regard, with voters deeply mistrustful of her. She is not as disliked as Trump, but she is still among the least liked presumptive nominees for president in the history of the country. Clinton’s struggle to modify her image as a polarizing figure could be helped by a figure like Kaine, a political bridge builder who has been largely immune to the charges of opportunism and lack of transparency that have dogged Clinton for decades.
He would be a particularly valuable buffer to the controversies swirling around Clinton as she pounds on Trump’s integrity. A stinging ad campaign the Clinton operation will unleash Thursday in swing states, including Virginia, shows wide-eyed children watching television as Trump appears on the screen making some of his most hostile comments. The ads include his declaration that undocumented Mexican immigrants are rapists, the spastic hand gestures he made while mocking a disabled reporter and his yearning to see protesters at his events “carried out in a stretcher.”
“Our children and grandchildren will look back at this time, at the choices we are about to make,” Clinton says. “The goals we will strive for, the principles we will live by.”
Clinton’s appearance with Kaine comes as the presidential race is close in several battleground states. Polling averages suggest a tossup at the moment in places like Ohio and Florida. While scant polling has been done in Virginia, Democrats are widely believed to have an edge there. They have benefited from steadily shifting demographics that have come with the explosion of growth in the state’s northern suburbs. The percentage of voters who are nonwhite has been growing rapidly, and that portion of the electorate - now more than 30 percent - favors Democrats.
Kaine was among the early Democrats to capitalize on such trends in a swing state, and the coalition he built in Virginia became a model for the Obama campaign.