Tim Kaine spent President Barack Obama's first year in office pulling double duty as Virginia's governor and the Democratic National Committee chairman -- and weathering criticism that he was an ineffective, absent party leader.
Now freed from the responsibilities of elected office and with the White House struggling to communicate with voters, Kaine has
fully embraced his party-chief role as Democrats try to persuade a sour public to stick with them amid unrelenting joblessness and
persistent Washington gridlock.
Over the past month, Kaine has increased his visibility, fundraising and travel to rally support for the president's agenda -- specifically Obama's endangered health care overhaul plan and economic fixes -- and minimize expected Democratic defeats in what's shaping up to be a difficult election environment.
Political coverage from NBC4.
State party leaders, who say Kaine got off to a slow start because he was a part-time chairman, welcomed his burst of activity. "He was handicapped a little bit by being governor," said Carol Fowler of South Carolina. "His leadership is really starting to show now.''
Kaine's higher profile is notable because as national party chairman, he's not just a figurehead for Democrats but he's also a
custodian of Obama's likely re-election effort in 2012. The president's political fortunes have fallen in the year since he took office, and Democrats in general are facing a public that just a year ago was overwhelmingly on their side but now seems ready to
punish them this fall.
A close friend of the president who shares a similar political style, Kaine is among those Obama has turned to as the White House
seeks to right the ship. Democrats say White House advisers realized they needed help spreading their message and wanted Kaine to be a more visible surrogate because they trust him to stay on script and deliver the president's viewpoints with the right tone.
Said White House senior adviser David Axelrod: "The chairman is there to amplify a message but also he's got party-building
responsibilities, and he's been assiduous about it.''
As a part-time chairman in 2009, Kaine visited 26 states and helped the DNC raise $77 million -- for the first time without
accepting money from political action committees or lobbyists -- compared with $81 million for its Republican counterpart. He raised an additional $9.2 million in January and has been to nine states since his term ended Jan. 16. He's increased his TV appearances on from roughly one a week last year to an average of four a week this year, including eight in the past week alone.
Aside from fundraising and organizing, Kaine's overall mission is different from that of his predecessor. Howard Dean, a former
Vermont governor, was the chief attack dog while leading the party when it was out of power. Kaine sees his job as primarily supporting the White House.
"Our goal is to help this president accomplish the change that he campaigned on, and it's a change in policy but also in politics,
tone, the way things are done, the way Washington works,'' Kaine said in an interview last week. He said he's also focused on
helping state parties elect candidates and recruit supporters, while building a grass-roots movement outside Washington that's
focused equally on changing policy as it is on electing Democrats.
In Kaine's first year, Democrats complained that he was missing from the national stage and hadn't done his part as chairman. They grumbled about Obama's decision to house his campaign network -- Organizing for America -- at the party, saying it was creating confusion in states. They griped that the national party seemed far more focused on Obama's 2012 likely re-election race than it was on ensuring Democrats retain majorities in Congress and among the roster of governors in 2010.
There remains anxiety among Democrats that the DNC may not be able to deliver on high expectations coming off a groundbreaking
Last month, former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder gave a face to the mostly private criticisms of Kaine, saying: "I'm just disappointed
in his leadership.'' He pointed to Kaine's electoral record.
Democrats have won five special congressional elections and a re-count in the 2008 Minnesota Senate race on Kaine's watch. But they've also lost a Massachusetts Senate race, and governors races in New Jersey and Kaine's home state of Virginia.
"All of us who are Democratic elected officials carry responsibility for those losses and have a responsibility to turn this around,'' said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. He said Kaine's "unflappable optimism, his focus on the future, his willingness to make adjustments will help us rebound from whatever shortcomings we've had in the first year.''
Chris Redfern, Ohio's party chairman, said he hopes Kaine's boosted role means Democrats will be answering Republican charges more aggressively.
"We have to push back dramatically, swiftly, vigorously, rhetorically. I'm sure the governor has those talents. I just hope he continues to be allowed to express them,'' he said. "There's a hunger in middle America that right now Democrats need to do a better job of feeding.''