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Tim Kaine tries to show he can give Clinton campaign a needed boost

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine is one of several Democrats that Hillary Clinton is considering for her vice presidential running mate.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

As deep voter distrust leaves Hillary Clinton vulnerable in several key swing states, Democrats are hopeful that the right choice of running mate will enable her to rebound quickly.

On Thursday, she auditioned the contender many believe is best positioned to provide that bounce.

Clinton appeared in Virginia with Sen. Tim Kaine, whose populist appeal, reputation as a steady hand and deep resume of public service have put him near the top of Clinton’s short list of candidates.

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Few Democrats question Kaine’s qualifications. He’s served as senator, governor, and chairman of the Democratic Party. The question mark hovering over Kaine is whether he has the charisma.

In a community college gymnasium, Kaine worked hard to assuage those concerns. He offered the crowd a Spanish lesson. He threw them some uncharacteristic red meat as Clinton nodded in approval. He told Clinton he liked her because she reminded him of his wife.

It would come as no surprise if Kaine were to get a callback.

“Estamos listo para Hillary!” said the one-time missionary in Honduras as he circled the stage in his open-collared shirt and blazer. He spoke admiringly of Latino immigrants, organized labor and feminists. “Hillary is ready to be our president. Hillary is ready to be our leader. Hillary is ready to make history.”

Kaine transitioned easily from bashing the presumptive GOP nominee’s narcissism and the allegations that Donald Trump swindled Trump University students to serious talk about the racial divisions in the country and Clinton’s role in trying to heal them.

He artfully distilled the choice in November to a few memorable slogans, which came in the form of questions. He asked the audience what it wants in a president: Trash-talker (Trump) or bridge builder (Clinton)? You’re fired (Trump) or a you’re hired (Clinton)? Me first (Trump) or kids and families first (Clinton)?

And Kaine then weaved in some of Trump’s most controversial statements and actions, including his trashing of Sen. John McCain for being a prisoner of war, his call to ban Muslims from entering the country and his refusal to release his tax returns.

By the time Clinton was up, chemistry had been established. “I really love what Tim said,” Clinton remarked. Then she talked about how running for president is like one giant job interview – ironic, considering Kaine seemed to be on his own employment tryout at that very moment.

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Kaine then showed he can be as skillful as Clinton at avoiding the media. Both ignored questions about the audition shouted on the rope line.

The senator, by his own admission, is a bit “boring.” He lacks the fire-up-the-base energy of fellow vice presidential prospect Elizabeth Warren. The kind of easy charm displayed by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, another potential running-mate pick for Clinton, also seems harder for Kaine.

But nobody on Clinton’s list would be a safer choice. Kaine’s credentials outstrip those of anyone else she is considering. His knowledge of both domestic and foreign policy and his deal-making prowess have long impressed colleagues, including Barack Obama, who came close to naming Kaine as his running mate in 2008, while Kaine was still Virginia’s governor. Kaine’s biggest shortcoming that year was a lack of foreign policy experience. He has since established himself as an authority on world affairs through his work on key Senate committees.

A Minnesota native, Kaine moved to Virginia after law school and became a civil rights lawyer, specializing in housing discrimination cases. He eventually ran for City Council in Richmond, the state capital, and then became mayor. He was elected governor in 2006 and won praise for his work with Republicans on gun safety legislation in the aftermath of a 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech in which 32 people were killed and 17 wounded.

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His campaign, which built a winning coalition of minority voters and white suburbanites, helped reshape the state, once a GOP stronghold, into a Southern beachhead for Obama that potentially could help Clinton overcome her trust deficit with voters in battleground states.

The presumptive Democratic nominee is in dire need of such a jolt. She has emerged badly bruised from the FBI investigation into her emailing practices. Even though Clinton was not indicted, FBI Director James Comey’s charge that she was “extremely careless” with her handling of classified material appears to have given voters pause. Polls taken since Comey testified showed Clinton’s already low ratings for trustworthiness had dropped even lower. They also showed Trump pulling even with her in select swing states.

The public mood could weigh heavily on Clinton’s decision, pushing her toward a low-drama moderate like Kaine – who can reassure swing voters -- over a fiery progressive like Warren who could mobilize liberals and recapture blue-collar workers attracted to Trump’s anti-trade agenda.

Democratic insiders express confidence that grumbling by progressives that Kaine is too conservative will dissipate once they learn of his record as a civil rights crusader and liberal coalition builder.

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Thursday’s appearance offered a glimpse of how Kaine could fit into the Clinton campaign’s aim to play to voter uneasiness by highlighting Trump’s incendiary campaign proposals, schoolyard taunts and self-absorption.

Kaine would be a particularly valuable buffer to the controversies swirling around Clinton as she pounds on Trump’s integrity. A stinging ad campaign the Clinton operation will unleash Thursday in swing states, including Virginia, shows wide-eyed children watching television as Trump appears on the screen making some of his most hostile comments. The ads include his declaration that Mexican immigrants in the country illegally are rapists, the spastic hand gestures he made while mocking a disabled reporter and his yearning to see protesters at his events “carried out in a stretcher.”

“Our children and grandchildren will look back at this time, at the choices we are about to make,” Clinton says in the ad. “The goals we will strive for, the principles we will live by.”

Kaine’s home state of Virginia is among the battlegrounds where Democrats are widely believed to have an edge. They have benefited from steadily shifting demographics that have come with the explosion of growth in the state’s northern suburbs. The percentage of voters who are nonwhite has been growing rapidly, and that portion of the electorate – now more than 30% – favors Democrats.

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Kaine was among the early Democrats to capitalize on such trends in a swing state, and the coalition he built in Virginia became a model for the Obama campaign. He accused Trump of seeking to stoke the fears of white voters the way politicians long had in Virginia.

“One political strategy is trying to divide people against one another,” he said. “We know that too well in Virginia. There have been many decades of politics like that in our state.”

evan.halper@latimes.com

Follow me: @evanhalper

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UPDATES:

3:18 p.m.: This story was updated after the campaign event.

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This story was originally published at 5 a.m.


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