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Tim Kaine, Mark Warner Excite Virginia Democratic Faithful

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia Democrats fired up the party’s base Saturday night at their annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, a formal kickoff to the election year in this presidential and Senate race epicenter.

More than 1,200 state legislators, party activists and supporters gathered at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, raising $350,000 for the state party and filling e-mail sign-up sheets for President Barack Obama’s re-election and ex-Gov. Tim Kaine’s campaign for the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D).

“2012 is going to be a great year,” Kaine said to a standing ovation as attendees in the ballroom waved his campaign signs. “You stick with me, we’re going to win, we’re going to do great things.”

In a top battleground for Obama, the president’s victory here is in turn crucial for Kaine. Speaking with reporters before the dinner, Kaine concurred with public polling that has consistently shown his race with former governor and Sen. George Allen (R) within the margin of error and said he expects that to continue into November.

“We’re starting to have a fairly consistent edge with independents, that’s positive,” Kaine said. “I like what’s happening in the presidential polling, but I’m no stranger to close races. And the way it’s setting up now, it’s energizing, but I like what I see.”

Kaine’s dinner speech focused on what he’s heard most from voters as he traveled the state over the past 10 months: the economy, fiscal responsibility and finding common ground between the parties in Congress. He criticized the “negativism and skepticism of Republicans running for president” and slammed Allen for his Senate record, including supporting legislation that led the country from a budget surplus to regular deficits.

Kaine reiterated support for the president’s decision Friday to amend the mandate on contraception coverage for women in all health insurance plans.

“The resolution to that issue yesterday was pro-contraception and pro-religious liberty,” Kaine said. “And the only people who oppose it are anti-contraception, let’s be very clear about that.”

A recorded video message from Obama campaign manager Jim Messina highlighted the president’s accomplishments over the past three years and said an Obama victory in Virginia will help “Democrats up and down the ticket, including my good friend, the next Senator of Virginia, Tim Kaine.”

Obama’s margin of victory in 2008 was identical nationwide and in Virginia, 53 percent to 46 percent, making it an emerging bellwether state. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who gave the dinner’s keynote speech, told reporters, “Most of the world recognizes when the Virginia vote comes in it will decide whether Barack Obama is going to get four more years.”

Schweitzer compared the Virginia Senate race to the one in his home state between Sen. Jon Tester (D) and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R).

“Like this race in Virginia, 95 percent of Montana already knows how they’re going to vote,” Schweitzer said. “And it’s more or less tied.”

Virginia Democratic Reps. Gerry Connolly, Bobby Scott and Jim Moran all gave short speeches, followed by Sen. Mark Warner (D), who warmed up the crowd and urged attendees to wave their Kaine campaign signs. Warner said Democrats were successful in November’s state legislative elections along the Interstate 95 and 64 corridors, in the eastern and central parts of the state, but have work to do along Interstate 81 in the west and Highway 58 in Southside Virginia.

Warner also gave a shout-out to his friend Paul Hirschbiel, a businessman challenging Rep. Scott Rigell (R) in the most competitive district in the state. Hirschbiel’s campaign had one of 122 tables in the expansive, modern ballroom, as did former Clinton fundraiser Terry McAuliffe, who ran for governor in 2009 and is expected to run again next year.

Other tables were filled by companies, labor unions and local Democratic committees from cities and counties including Norfolk, Fairfax, Goochland, Arlington and Alexandria.

Kaine’s wife, Anne Holton, introduced the former governor. This is the first campaign the former judge has been allowed to publicly support her husband. State law prohibited Holton from campaigning for Kaine while serving as a juvenile court judge in Richmond.

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