Kaine, a Democrat, and Allen, a Republican and former senator, will face off in a debate at noon Thursday at the Capitol One Conference Center in McLean sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and NBC4. NBC will broadcast the debate live and stream it on its website.
The pressure is on because of Virginia's status as a bona fide swing state. The Old Dominion could very well determine not only the presidency, but which party controls the Senate.
The two candidates have been crisscrossing the state at a breakneck pace only to be locked in what's essentially a tie. The latest Real Clear Politics average shows Kaine with little more than a 2-percent lead, well within the margin of error in any worthwhile poll. Kaine's averaging 47.5 percent of the vote, compared 45.3 percent for Allen, according to that website.
"The most obvious thing at the debate is to not say anything inordinately stupid," said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"For the most part, people have pretty much made up their mind about the presidential race and the down-ticket races," he said. "There's no lack in name ID or anything with (the Senate candidates). People who are actually going to watch this debate actually follow the race. And the people who will watch are probably going to think the guy they support won, no matter what happens. So the main trick is don't say anything foolish — Don't create a headline."
It's the last thing journalists — and partisan Republicans and Democrats — want to hear. But it's perhaps somewhat anticipated, given the noon live broadcast time of the debate, the first of three slated for October.
"They both have to stay on message, and I think it's especially important for George Allen to do so — especially in the vein of what happened six years ago with off-the-cuff comments," said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor who specializes in Virginia politics at George Mason University.
"2006 was quite a surprise to people who had followed George Allen over the years. He was noted for being very careful with his choice of language. For whatever reason, he seemed to lose that discipline in 2006 — and it cost him a campaign he should have won. It's especially important for Allen to be cautious in his choice of words and to stay very strictly on message."
Some disagreement exists about the number of people who call themselves independent versus those who are actually independent voters. Both candidates have made it a point to talk about their bipartisan ability, though Skelley said he believes that's just playing to what people like to hear.
"You've got this narrow sliver of the electorate who are undecided," he said. "But they are the least informed and may not even turn out. So what you've got is the battle of the bases… And you want to make sure they show up."
And so, with the electorate polarized perhaps more than it has been in years, the outcome of the Senate race could very well come down to how Virginia swings in the presidential race. President Barack Obama enjoys only an average 3-point lead over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, according to Real Clear Politics.
Republicans are counting on the electoral drive that led them to victory in Virginia in the 2009 gubernatorial race and 2010 state legislative races. Democrats are hoping more for a repeat of 2008.
But while the influence of the top-ticket race cannot be overlooked, it's not the only factor, either.
"If anything, Kaine's campaign just doesn't seem to have electrified the core constituencies in Virginia — and that's not to say George Allen has," Rozell told Patch on Wednesday. "But even with his troubles in 2006, Allen has always had a certain core of intensely enthusiastic supporters going back to the 1990s. Although that has diminished, of course, from what it used to be — there still are those strong Allen loyalists. He builds that kind of personal loyalty that Tim Kaine just doesn't quite possess on the same level with his supporters."
A recent Washington Post poll showed that only jobs and the economy stands out as a major issue in this race. No other single issue topped 5 percent of likely voters calling it the most important, according to the Post.
Tied into that is the awkward issue of sequestration — something that may at least be familiar to news hawks or federal employees or contractors, but may not be on the tip of the tongue of Joe Six-Pack. Yet the one-time stopgap measure could turn into a multimillion dollar albatross around Virginia's economic neck, costing thousands of defense and related jobs in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Because of the Northern Virginia locale, the issue is likely to come up — if not in a question, then by the candidates themselves. They've both been talking about it lately. A lot.
"It's kind of a weird situation. The most important issue in the overall economic picture of Virginia, and neither side seems to be able to get a leg up on this politically, because their parties agreed to it, because they couldn't come to an agreement," Skelley said. "It's hard for either candidate to credibly argue why they are more in the right than the other on this issue, because their parties agreed to it."