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The Nation’s Most Gentlemanly Tossup Race

October got off to a lackluster start for Virginia Senate candidate George Allen. Flagging slightly in the polls, with some 40 days left until Election Day, the 60-year-old former governor began the month with a drowsy business roundtable in the conference room of an Alexandria real estate attorney. About a dozen local business owners nodded vacantly as Allen talked about looming sequestration defense cuts and languorously ticked off a list of taxes he opposed. At one point, he paused, sensing he’d missed one. “Oh. Replacing this health care tax law. That’s another one of those.”

Elsewhere in Northern Virginia, in the upper-middle-class Washington suburb of Fairfax, Allen’s rival, Tim Kaine, wasn’t much snappier. His hundred-person audience of mostly white, middle-aged and senior women was at times restless and bored—owing, perhaps, to Kaine’s long discussion of transit expansion. Eventually, Kaine meandered to talk of entitlement programs, observing that his opponent once voted to privatize Social Security. But rather than attacking him on this point, Kaine shrugged. As if to say, “Gee, that’s too bad of him.”

Welcome to the nation’s courtliest Senate race. The polls may be close, and control of the U.S. Senate may be bound up with the outcome, but Allen and Kaine are not going to let those facts drag them into some sort of competition. The scrappiness of Claire McCaskill, and the theatrical energy of Heidi Heitkamp are totally absent here. There are few instances of one candidate “slamming” the other one on the stump, and there are no—gulp—“zingers.” Are Tim Kaine and George Allen just irrepressible gentlemen? Or is something else boxing in these former governors as they vie for the U.S. Senate?

VIRGINIA IS STILL very much a battleground state; for months, its voters have endured a geyser of tedious political attack ads. A Planned Parenthood ad charging that “Mitt Romney would turn back the clock for women,” a Romney ad declaring, “Who will raise taxes on the middle class? Barack Obama and the liberals already have,” and the Obama spot that makes searing use of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks have all materialized on its television stations in just the past few weeks. Already Virginia has weathered some of this year’s most obnoxious political fights—recall the “vaginal ultrasound” bill—and most voters are vaguely aware that a tense governor’s race, involving serial malcontent Ken Cucinelli, will rev up just as next months’ elections wind down.

Yet Allen and Kaine, in their public appearances at least, are sparing voters the worst of this election cycle. Bob Holsworth, a political expert with Virginia Commonwealth University, described their first debate as mostly a contest to prove that they could work across the aisle better than the other.

Allen makes his case with an air of fatigue. Once he was the guy who riffed on the sins of “livin’ inside the Beltway” and said of his opponent’s brown-skinned video tracker, “Let’s give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America, and the real world of Virginia.” But the new Allen is an affable Chamber of Commerce conservative who stumps with all the vigor of a tenured humanities professor. Allen could not, at that business roundtable inside the Beltway he so abhors, even bring himself to make hay out of the Democrats’ deeply unpopular healthcare reform bill. (In fact, he spent most of the appearance taking notes.)

Kaine, meanwhile, has made the crux of his campaign less about issues than ethos, never missing an opportunity to brandish praise for the lost art of compromise—you would never guess that he was once the head of the DNC. His interviews and appearances are dotted with pleas for the ruling class to “get to know one another” so they can find common ground. And while team Obama has decided that women’s issues hold the key Northern Virginians’ hearts, smothering the area in Romney-is-anti-woman ads, in person, Kaine has refrained from using women’s issues, and Allen’s lousy record on them, as an easy way to beat up on his opponent.

To be sure, a race clear of many wedge issues, a candidate who pontificates on the values of compromise and another who’s trying to walk back his countrified racism—these are not bad things. But the Kaine–Allen civility may just be a product of overriding circumstances in Old Dominion. The truth is, very little has moved the polls in this Senate race. The recent bump in Kaine’s favor appears inextricably tied to Obama’s surge, which may be deflating in the wake of his unimpressive first debate. The tiny slice of Virginia’s voters who are still undecided, says Holsworth, will likely swing on which presidential candidate they choose. If Obama wins, he is almost sure to carry Kaine into the Senate on his coattails. If Romney captures the state, Kaine depends on there being some vanishingly small number of Romney-Kaine voters; Allen is counting on the opposite.

Then there’s the money. Kaine, Allen, and the outside groups supporting them have spent a flabbergasting amount of it on this race. Majority PAC, the Democratic super PAC whose mission it is to hold the Senate, has shoveled a $4.1 million into this race, or more than a quarter of their overall spending. Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove outfit, has spent $4.6 million drubbing Kaine’s record as governor. Together, the candidates have spent $12.5 million. All told, some observers conclude that this might be the second most expensive Senate race in the county.

And the air war has been markedly less reserved than the ground game. A Kaine radio spot simply replays his rebuke of Allen on women’s issues from one of the campaign’s few feisty moments, their Sept. 20 debate: “If you force women to have an ultrasound procedure against their will and pay for it … if you deny women the opportunity because of personhood legislation to make constitutional choices, even including whether to purchase contraception, that’s an economic issue.” A DSCC ad on behalf of Kaine concludes, “George Allen is the last thing [women] need in Washington.” A George Allen ad hits Kaine on last summer’s debt ceiling compromise, (the one on which Allen’s party collaborated), accusing Kaine of endangering thousands of Virginia jobs through defense cuts. Yet neither has scored many points off the ads. As Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, points out, it’s hard to define an opponent whom voters already know from his four years as governor.

This is to say, factor in the candidate’s ads and the coattails effect of the presidential race, and Kaine and Allen’s politesse starts to look a lot more political. Yet it endures. And why not? In a contest where an unremitting ad campaign doesn’t move the polls, the undecided voters are persnickety and few, and there’s not much to do besides let the presidential race sort itself out, you might as well make nice with the other guy.

Follow me on Twitter @mtredden