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US Senate race in Virginia shaping up as national battleground

In Virginia's US Senate race, Democrat Tim Kaine isn't Barack Obama, and Republican George Allen isn't Mitt Romney or the House GOP leadership. But you wouldn't know it from the special-interest ads pouring into this key battleground state.

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And it's not just advertising space that's going to be jammed, with Virginia political observers expecting the state to be packed with staff from both presidential campaigns.

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“By election day, the Obama campaign will dwarf the Virginia Democratic Party itself and its infrastructure,” says Quentin Kidd, a professor at Christopher Newport University and a Virginia political pollster. “Your ability as Tim Kaine, US Senate candidate, no matter how well positioned you are, you aren’t well positioned enough to dominate the agenda that the Obama campaign is going to impose on Virginia. And I assume the Romney campaign is going to try to do the same thing.”

Just consider how much presidential attention Virginia has received at even this early hour. When Mr. Obama elected to formally inaugurate his general election campaign, his campaign wedded kickoff events in perpetual battleground Ohio to one in Richmond, Va., the city where Kaine was once mayor. After first lady Michelle Obama scheduled a commencement address at Virginia Tech, one of the state's largest universities, GOP presumptive nominee Mitt Romney quickly countered with a graduation speech of his own at nearby Liberty University, the institution founded by late religious right stalwart Jerry Falwell.

Next, nowhere outside of Massachusetts do a pair of Senate candidates have such sizable national profiles to compliment their deep in-state roots. Kaine is a former mayor of Richmond and state lieutenant governor, as well as former governor. He went on to chair the Democratic National Committee and was widely thought to have been on Obama's vice-presidential short list in 2008.

Allen is connected to a football dynasty with Virginia's beloved Washington Redskins: His father was a revered Redskins head coach, and his brother is the team's current general manager. He served for nine years in the Virginia House of Delegates, a term in the US House of Representatives, and a term in the US Senate. He was widely touted as a presidential candidate before coming up some 9,000 votes short in his Senate reelection race against heavy underdog Jim Webb (D) in 2006.

As such, Virginia voters already have well-formed opinions of both candidates, meaning it will be harder for either one to change a voter’s perception. Neither candidate is likely to make a massive, campaign-altering gaffe along the lines of Allen’s “macaca” moment from 2006, an off-the-cuff remark to a Webb campaign staffer, viewed as racially insensitive, that likely cost Allen his razor-thin race against Mr. Webb.

“I don’t see either one of these guys really pushing the other one on the issues,” Mr. Kidd says. “They’re both great debaters. They’re both in command of the issues, they both have a history in Virginia, they’re really well known. There’s nothing one candidate can leverage against the other one, that I can see.”

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