By DONNA CASSATA
LEESBURG, Va. - Democrat Tim Kaine talks a lot about Republicans _ the ones in his family, the ones he's worked with and the ones he hopes will help him bridge the caustic political divide if he's elected to the U.S. Senate.
"We can't have a functioning nation with a dysfunctional legislative branch," the former Democratic Party chairman says at a recent campaign stop. "John Warner said something to me: `It's not sick-building syndrome, it's not in the water supply. It's in the character and the inclination of the people who walk in there every day.' The only way it will change is if we put in people who have a different set of character and inclinations."
Kaine's words draw loud applause from the seniors at Leisure World in this northern Virginia suburb, most of them Democrats, a few wearing "Grandma for Obama" buttons.
Former Virginia Sen. Warner isn't the only Republican whom Kaine mentions in his hour-long question-and-answer session on budgets, health care and education. He cites President Dwight Eisenhower, praises Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and mentions that his hero is his father-in-law _ Linwood Holton, who in 1970 was Virginia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
A few days later, at a retirement community near Fort Belvoir, Republican candidate George Allen eagerly recounts stories of successful bipartisanship from his days in the state legislature and talks of being "united regardless of party or where we live." The former senator ticks off the names of Democrats he worked with _ Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ron Wyden _ and the ones he's certain would join forces with him on energy _ Mary Landrieu, Joe Manchin, perhaps Mark Begich.
"I hope to win not because someone is so much against the other side. There's obviously differences. That's to be expected in a representative democracy. Not everyone has the same opinion. ... Then you have civil engagement where you discuss those ideas. Civil engagement is the best approach to create more jobs, better security, whatever the issue may be and let the people decide," Allen says.
Kaine and Allen _ two former governors locked in an excruciatingly close race for Senate _ purposely are talking up cooperation. It's not only recognition of the electorate's dissatisfaction with months of Washington vitriol and gridlock, it's a political necessity in an evenly divided state as they pitch to the few remaining independent voters.
Yes, Virginia is the decider this year, a genuine swing state that holds an outsized role in determining the presidency and control of the Senate. It is one of roughly a dozen battleground states that could tip the election to either President Barack Obama or Republican Mitt Romney. It also is one of about a dozen Senate races that could decide who's in charge on Capitol Hill in January.
Polls have shown Kaine, 54, the former Richmond mayor and lieutenant governor, and Allen, 60, namesake son of the legendary Washington Redskins coach, essentially tied for much of the year. Two new polls out this week gave Kaine a slight advantage. The difference on Election Day could be fewer than 10,000 votes. In 2006, Democrat Jim Webb edged out Allen by just under 9,000 votes out of 2.3 million cast.
"Our country was formed on compromise," said Preston Hewitt, 62, a Republican who heard Kaine talk to workers at the Raging Wire data centers in Ashburn, Va., and is considering backing the Democrat.
"That's the way it should be," said Monique Baird, 81, an Allen supporter at the retirement home near Fort Belvoir who faulted President Barack Obama for divisive politics and a move toward socialism.
In the campaign's final seven weeks, Kaine and Allen have three debates _ one Thursday, another Oct. 8 and the last one at Virginia Tech on Oct. 18.
"You've gone through a few rendezvouses with destiny," Allen tells the World War II veterans and other military retirees, "but as far as younger generations, for all of us, this is our time for choosing, or as my father would say, `The future is now.' That future is going to get decided on November 6."
All year, roughly a dozen Senate races have been fiercely competitive as Democrats fight to hold onto their slim majority _ 51-47 plus two independents who caucus with the party _ while defending 23 seats to the GOP's 10. Republicans need a net gain of four seats to grab control.
Some races have receded in the final stretch _ New Mexico looks more certain for Democrats, Arizona for Republicans. The GOP establishment abandoned Missouri after Rep. Todd Akin's comments about pregnancy and "legitimate" rape. Polls suggest that once vulnerable Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill will hold the seat.