As Barack Obama gets closer to his choice of a running-mate, speculation today is focusing on Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, whose allies are letting it be known that he’s being fully vetted as a short-lister. 

Kaine’s political strengths and weaknesses are pretty well known.  He’s a very successful politician in a state that hasn’t gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964, but that may be winnable this year. He’s a civil rights lawyer by profession, but has built on Mark Warner’s efforts to reach beyond party lines for both electoral and legislative support. On the other hand, he’s still in his first term of office (and ineligible to run for re-election in 2009), and has no significant foreign policy experience. 

It’s Kaine’s faith background that makes him an interesting option for Obama. 

He’s not only a practicing Catholic (an area of relative weakness for Obama during the primaries); he once served as a missionary in Central America. (His Spanish-language fluency is definitely an asset beyond Virginia). And in his 2005 gubernatorial campaign, he provided an interesting example of how faith can provide a defense against wedge-issue attacks.  

His Republican opponent, Jerry (No Relation!) Kilgore, launched a barrage of ads attacking Kaine’s opposition to the death penalty, as part of an effort to convince Virginians that the Democrat was well to the left of the popular Warner.  Kaine responded by attributing his death-penalty position to Catholic teaching, and then argued that he could be trusted nonetheless to enforce the death penalty after he took the oath of office on a Bible.  By most accounts, Kaine won this exchange decisively, without changing his position or acting evasively.    

If Obama and his team are fully familiar with this incident, it may add to Kaine’s appeal as a running-mate, given the avalanche of wedge-issue attacks the Democratic ticket is going to undergo in the fall.

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