By Patricia Zengerle
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia (Reuters) - Virginia's Tim Kaine was one of the first state governors to endorse Barack Obama for president in 2008, he worked with Obama as head of the Democratic National Committee, and he is still one of the president's leading supporters.
So, which fellow Democrat has been co-starring with Kaine in his U.S. Senate race? Not the president, but former Virginia Governor Mark Warner.
The fight for Virginia's open Senate seat should be one of the tightest of the 33 up for grabs in the November 6 election. Most polls predict a dead heat between Kaine and George Allen, a former Republican governor who once held the seat.
It is also one of the most important, in a state that was reliably Republican for two generations until Obama captured it by 7 percentage points four years ago.
This time, the Virginia Senate race is perhaps more than anything a referendum on Obama. It will test whether his ability in 2008 to expand Democratic territory into states like Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana was more than a one-time blip in the electoral landscape.
"It's a pure coat-tail race," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "The winner of the presidential contest will also pick up the Senate seat."
Kaine has treated the issue delicately, acknowledging policy differences with Obama. He has toured the state with Warner, a long-time friend who preceded him as governor, and appears with him on his Facebook page, the two casting themselves as symbols of an uprising of moderates that reflects Virginia's changing demographics.
"My sense is the Kaine campaign is waterskiing behind the Obama campaign's speed boat, trying to stay up, trying not to get pulled over by the wake and coordinating as much as they can and talking back and forth to each other as much as they can," said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.
"They are trying to keep on their feet and balanced in the context of this massive Obama operation and when they can, separate themselves in a way that reminds voters that Kaine is his own man, has his own campaign, has his own policy positions that might not match up with Obama. It's a fine dance," he said.
MORE MODERATE THAN OBAMA
While making the best of his ties to his fellow Democrat and appearing with Obama at a rally in the state capital Richmond, Kaine is also working to establish himself as more moderate than Obama.
Kaine, a former Roman Catholic missionary, stops short of backing gay marriage, which Obama now supports. The Virginia candidate does not use the word "marriage," saying only that all couples should have the same legal rights.
He has also been making a relatively conservative fiscal case, charging Allen with supporting plans as a senator that added to the U.S. budget deficit and promoting earmarks.
"There are folks who like me a little bit better because of my connection with the president, there are folks who like me a little bit less. I think that all washes out," Kaine told reporters this month at the Washington think tank Third Way.
The race will also be one of the country's most expensive.
"It's really one of these races that is going to be decided by a very slim margin," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
"In so many ways, these two candidates are pretty evenly matched in terms of resume, experience. ... They're both pretty well liked, maybe Kaine does a little bit better with voters, but not measurably so," Duffy said.
Four years ago, Obama became the first Democrat since 1964 to win Virginia's electoral votes in a presidential election as a younger, more ethnically diverse population - especially in the booming Washington suburbs - turned the state from a Republican bastion into a battleground.
"Whatever you think the electorate was two, four, six or eight years ago, it has changed," said George Mason University's Toni-Michelle Travis, author of the Almanac of Virginia Politics.
Obama's re-election team has already built a formidable network in Virginia. There are about 15 Obama offices open already, and thousands of volunteers, including 1,500 who signed up when Obama held one of his first 2012 campaign rallies in Richmond this month.
He leads Romney by an average of 3.2 percentage points in the state, according to polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com.
ARE REPUBLICANS TOO FAR RIGHT?
Many Virginians, particularly women and younger voters, have soured on what they see as a Republican shift to the far right after a bitter partisan state budget fight and a Republican-led effort to force women seeking abortions to undergo invasive vaginal ultrasounds.
But Republicans scored big in elections in 2009, 2010 and 2011, taking the statehouse and majorities in the legislature and the delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives.
"The Democrats are going to have a tough time remaking what they achieved in 2008," said Dan Allen, a senior adviser to Republican Allen's campaign. Allen's team expects a close race but says unhappiness with Obama policies such as the economic stimulus plan and his healthcare law has fueled more recent Republican success here.
"Tim Kaine, as the president's handpicked party chairman, was the president's chief advocate," said Dan Allen, who is not related to the former governor.
Just as his rival keeps a distance from the president, Allen has not formally endorsed his party's presumptive nominee Mitt Romney and has not campaigned with him. His campaign said that is because Allen is still not the official nominee.
That approach appears to make sense, given that many core primary voters like Tea Party members and evangelical Christians are wary of Romney.
Their discomfort with Romney's moderate record as governor of Massachusetts could translate to problems for both Republicans in November.
Lisa Miller, a Tea Party activist from Alexandria, said she would back the Republican candidate, but not enthusiastically. "I am in the same position with Allen as I am with Romney," she said. "I'll vote for the lesser of two evils."
Allen is likely to easily win a primary election on June 12. Once the race with Kaine begins in earnest, an incident from six years ago may resurface. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000, Allen lost his re-election bid to Democrat Jim Webb in 2006 by fewer than 10,000 votes after he was videotaped using the racial epithet "macaca" to describe a Webb staffer.
Allen has apologized and, while the episode might have an effect this time, most voters are more concerned with economic and social issues.
"If he were brand new, it might be a problem," said Kidd, noting that Allen, the son of a popular Washington Redskins football coach, has been well-known in the state since he played quarterback at the University of Virginia.
"He's the quarterback, and who doesn't like the quarterback?" Kidd asked.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Mohammad Zargham)