US Senate Race in Virginia Shaping Up as National Battleground

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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.

Republicans think Virginia Senate contender Tim Kaine has got an Obama problem.

"Reckless spending, red ink, higher taxes - [Mr. Kaine and President Obama] have a lot in common," intones ads created by Republican super group Crossroads GPS. Kaine's likely foe, former US senator and former Virginia governor George Allen (R), has put up billboards calling Kaine "Obama's Senator. Not Virginia's."

The Kaine campaign's response? In short: Bring it on.

"It's time we reject this type of divisive politics," says Kaine, a former Virginia governor himself, in a fundraising e-mail. "If you want a Senator who'll partner with the President to do what's best for the nation, I'm your guy."

In Virginia in 2012, presidential politics is perhaps more tightly coupled to senatorial politics than anywhere else in the nation.

The race for the White House always affects contests lower on the ticket. But the Senate contest in Virginia is going to be a battle where presidential questions - What is the legacy of "Obamacare"? Who can cut the federal budget, and where? Will the Republican candidate be conservative enough for the party's restive base? - will not just weigh heavy on the debate: They very well may be the debate, leaving both Mr. Allen and Kaine in the wake of presidential forces far beyond their control.

"They both realize that the national overlay on this election has an impact that may go far beyond what each of them can do in their campaigns," says Bob Holsworth, a Richmond-based consultant who has worked with Virginia governors of both parties.

Consider: Of the 10 US Senate races considered to be the most competitive, only one other contest - Nevada - is in a swing state. Both campaigns and independent analysts believe that is leading, already, to a massive infusion of outside money and attention unmatched in the commonwealth's recent political history.

Players such as Crossroads GPS, the Chamber of Commerce, and conservative American Energy Alliance have already committed millions of dollars to anti-Kaine or anti-Obama advertising in Virginia. That's been countered by smaller spending by Democratic "super PAC" Priorities USA and advertisements from President Obama's campaign. The Republican Senate Campaign Committee already staked out $5.5 million in advertising space for the fall - its largest reservation in any state to date.

(Kaine offered Allen a deal whereby both candidates would work to ensure that outside groups buying ads in Virginia would have to disclose their donors. Super political-action committees, which can raise unlimited amounts of money but cannot coordinate directly with political campaigns, are not legally bound to disclose such information. Allen declined the offer. Both campaigns have associated super PACs, although Kaine's group says it will disclose the names of its donors.)

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.

"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. …