What the GOP primary means in Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Tim Kaine has the luxury of crisscrossing Virginia for the next two months with the Democratic nomination for November's U.S. Senate race in the bank - no bothersome primary to fret.

He's free to pound away on George Allen, the Republican frontrunner, from the left while a pack of conservative Republicans also seeking the GOP nomination tear at Allen from the right.

Already at a cash disadvantage to Kaine, Allen will have to dig into his campaign treasury to battle Delegate Bob Marshall, tea party chieftain Jamie Radtke and Chesapeake preacher E.W. Jackson.

So for Kaine, a former governor with Democratic friends in the highest places and a bye right into the fall election, it's all good, right? Not necessarily.

Republicans will get from their intramural feud some things money can't buy. They get the media spotlight to themselves for weeks. They focus and spread their message, energize and organize their power. And they come away from the June primary with a fresh list of Republican voters.

"We get to excite our voter base, stir them up, make them realize what a critical moment this is for them, and all Kaine gets to do is sit there and watch," said Jackson, the only black candidate in the race to succeed Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, who is not running for a second term.

"It gives us an opportunity, I think, to put our team together. It gets our team organized earlier and and ready for the main opponent - Tim Kaine and the Washington liberals," Allen, namesake son of the Washington Redskins' Hall of Fame coach, said, speaking as usual in football metaphors and describing the GOP nomination battle as "an intrasquad scrimmage."

Kaine, who traveled across Virginia last week with Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner promoting his new campaign plan for energizing the sluggish economy, has to somehow stay relevant through mid-June, said University of Virginia political science professor Larry J. Sabato.

"He has to find ways to re-introduce himself constantly so that he can wedge into the story. People cover the current contest, and the current contest is the Republican primary," Sabato said.

The candidates also get a chance to distinguish themselves from the others with three debates beginning April 28 sponsored by the Republican Party of Virginia, and Allen - clearly the man to beat - will be the common target of his hungry, underdog primary rivals.

"It appears to me that Allen has not been damaged a lick thus far by his Republican primary opponents," said Robert D. Holsworth, a consultant and retired Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor.

Democratic strategist and Kaine adviser Mo Elleithee concedes Republicans will have the media's attention, "but I'm not sure it's going to be the kind of attention they want."

"I'm not sure Allen's going to welcome attacks from his primary opponents over his spending habits when he was in the Senate before," Elleithee said.

Allen, a well-connected former governor looking to win back the seat he lost to Webb in 2006, is clearly the man to beat to win the nomination. He raised $1.4 million in the first three months of 2012 and entered April with $2.6 million in the bank, a figure likely to dwarf comparable fundraising totals of his lesser-known Republican rivals, who have yet to release their figures.

Allen has steadfastly refused to lash out at his GOP opponents and has kept his crosshairs on Kaine, also a former governor, and Kaine's friend, President Barack Obama.

"I'm going to follow Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment, and that is not to speak ill of fellow Republicans," Allen said in a telephone interview Friday.

Allen's hungry Republican adversaries haven't been so kind, ripping him for going along with increases in federal spending during his previous Senate term when Republicans ruled the Senate and George W. Bush occupied the White House.

"Allen's Republican opponents are more likely to be harsh than Kaine is," Sabato said. "And often the most incendiary charge in a debate becomes the headline. That's Allen's real danger."

The most reliable voters in GOP primaries reside on the party's right flank, and the entire GOP pack is courting them. But there is danger, Holsworth said, that it could yield an eventual nominee who could have a difficult time plausibly repositioning himself (or herself) toward the political middle by autumn.

Allen had no primary in 2006 and split his free time between fundraising in Virginia and elsewhere and visiting Iowa, sizing up his prospects for a possible 2008 presidential run. Webb survived a bitter showdown against Democrat Harris Miller.

After a gaffe-strewn general election campaign, Allen lost to Webb by 9,329 votes out of 2.37 million cast, a margin of less than four-tenths of a percentage point.

The most conspicuous difference this year for Allen is the presence of his wife, Susan. She was virtually invisible in 2006 after playing prominent roles in her husband's previous triumphs.

This year, her itinerary is nearly as ambitious as George's.

"If Susan had been more involved in the last campaign, would that have made a difference? Probably so," Allen said, calling her his "most valuable player."

Her central role in the primary and possibly the fall election also carries tactical significance as Allen's best rebuttal to Democratic assertions that GOP social conservatives are hostile toward the rights of women, Holsworth said.