Tim Kaine is a graduate of Harvard Law School, a savvy legal advocate who made a name for himself working with the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups to battle housing discrimination, and a multilingual world traveler who responds to questions with references to Federico Fellini’s films and Mario Vargas Llosa’s novels. But on a hot late-summer afternoon in the dusty southwest Virginia town of Galax, which seems about as far from Harvard Yard as an American can travel, Kaine was making no references to his best-and-brightest legal training, nor to foreign films. Instead, he was blowing a harmonica with the fellows who’d gathered at Barr’s Fiddle Shop, cranking out a foot-stomping rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” As he campaigns for governor of Virginia, in the most critical of the November 8 off-year elections for the battered Democratic Party, Kaine is making like a good ol’ boy, wheeling around Virginia in a Dodge Dakota pickup truck, quoting Bible verses, shouldering a 12-gauge shotgun, announcing, “I enjoy shooting skeet” and playing that harmonica for all it’s worth.

Kaine, the state’s lieutenant governor, is in a tight contest with former Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore. If he succeeds in making a down-home connection with the retired coal miners and laid-off textile workers who are the critical swing voters of Appalachian Virginia, Kaine will do more than merely win the governorship of one of the most politically complicated states in the nation. He will give national Democrats something they want, and something they sorely need. The something they want is a strong start in the intense competition to fill the increasingly powerful and politically influential governor’s seats in the thirty-eight states holding elections over the next year. If Democrats win the two races in play this year–Virginia and New Jersey, where Democratic US Senator Jon Corzine maintains a narrow lead over Republican Doug Forrester–and a solid majority of the thirty-six contests to be decided in November 2006, as now seems possible, they will reverse more than a decade of Republican dominance at the state level. They will also begin to position the party as a more broadly competitive player in 2008–the “national party” that Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean keeps talking about. But to do that, Democrats must also secure the “something they sorely need” part of the equation: a major win in a Southern state.

The Democratic Party has been in decline in the South for a long time. But until the Bush years, that decline came in fits and starts that always left room to argue that the party could still compete in a region where working-class whites and African-Americans, as well as burgeoning Latino and Asian immigrant populations, have seen the “no-new-taxes, no-new-programs” approach of conservative Republicans speed the decline of rural economies, the loss of key manufacturing industries and the crumbling of healthcare and education systems. But since 2000, when George W. Bush secured the electoral votes of every state of the old Confederacy–reversing the progress Arkansan Bill Clinton had made in 1992 and 1996–Democratic fortunes in the South have been dismal. The party lost the governorships of South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama in 2002 and of Mississippi in 2003. In 2004 Democratic Senate seats in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana fell to the Republicans, while Bush gained not just his electoral-vote margin but a popular-vote cushion that more than offset Democrat John Kerry’s strength in the rest of the country.

The setbacks of recent years have renewed conversations among insiders regarding the old suggestion of the late Paul Tully, one of the Democratic Party’s most respected strategists, that Democrats should simply abandon the South and build on their base in the rest of the country. Even before the setbacks of 2004, University of Maryland political scientist Tom Schaller penned a widely circulated commentary in which he suggested that Democrats simply “stop trying” in the nation’s largest region. “Moving forward, the Democrats would be better served by simply conceding the South and redirecting their already scarce resources to more promising states where they’re making gains, especially those in the Southwest,” argued Schaller, whose views are frequently echoed in the quiet councils of Democratic leaders–councils that include fewer and fewer Southerners.

In this year’s race for the DNC chairmanship, Dean drew early and unexpectedly enthusiastic support from party activists in Alabama, Mississippi and other states across Dixie by pledging, “The Democratic Party will not give up on the South.” This fall’s Virginia gubernatorial race is a key test of that promise. The DNC has chipped in more than $1.5 million–the party’s biggest contribution to its big-city mayoral or gubernatorial candidates this year, and one of its biggest ever–to the Kaine campaign, which is also drawing strong support from the Service Employees International Union and other labor groups. John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and 2004 vice presidential nominee, has campaigned for Kaine, as have Senator Barack Obama and Gen. Wesley Clark; former President Clinton is scheduled for a late-October visit. A scaled-down version of the Media Fund, the 527 group that spent tens of millions trying to elect Kerry and other Democrats in 2004, is on the ground working to increase turnout in Virginia’s Democratic strongholds, including the Washington suburbs and urban centers such as Hampton Roads and Richmond, where Kaine formerly served as mayor. Turning out reliably Democratic voters is critical, in a state that is more evenly divided than its electoral history at the national level would suggest.

Virginia was the first state of the Democratic Party’s old “Solid South” to begin regularly voting Republican for President, in 1952, and since then it has backed only one Democrat for the nation’s top job: Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In the 1990s it appeared that the Democrats might be finished in Virginia. For the first time in history Republicans won every statewide elective post in 1997; two years later they took control of both chambers of the state legislature. But a strange thing happened in 2000. Strong support from the rapidly growing and increasingly liberal suburbs of Washington made Democrat Al Gore reasonably competitive in the presidential race, winning 44 percent of the vote statewide. At a time when much of the South was going Republican, Virginia was showing the first signs of a Democratic tilt. A year later, in 2001, Democrats Mark Warner and Kaine were narrowly elected governor and lieutenant governor, respectively.

A telecommunications millionaire elected on a “run Virginia like a business” program, Warner was able to forge a governing coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. In 2003, faced with a budget shortfall that threatened already-squeezed education and healthcare programs, not to mention its bond rating, Warner began pushing for $1.5 billion in tax increases. Conservatives screamed, and some Democratic strategists, the same folks who are always telling national Democrats to be cautious, worried aloud that the move would hand the GOP an issue. But the gamble worked. Virginia now has a triple-A bond rating and a budget surplus that has allowed Warner to move money into transportation initiatives–a big deal in and around the hellish Washington Beltway–and the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay.

With an unprecedented approval rating of 76 percent, Warner would be a cinch for re-election this year if Virginia were not the last state in the country that limits governors to a single four-year term. So as Warner toys with a 2008 Democratic presidential run, Kaine is promising to carry on. “People are happy with the way the state is being run,” says the Democratic nominee as he touts the accomplishments of what he dubs the “Warner-Kaine Administration.” But even with the popular Warner on the campaign trail for Kaine, and even with Kilgore stumbling badly by first trying to avoid debates and then refusing to answer questions about his platform once he was dragged to the podium, the race is a dead heat. Kaine is running well in Democratic areas, while Kilgore is using a big bankroll and aggressive backing from Republican Senator George Allen (a former governor with 2008 presidential ambitions of his own) to stoke up the Republican machine with an antiabortion, anti-gun control message–and with a brutal television assault on Kaine’s acknowledgment that, as a Catholic, he is personally opposed to the death penalty. Though Kaine has said he would permit executions as governor, and Virginia newspapers have ripped Kilgore for stretching the truth to the breaking point, the attacks have taken their toll in a state that, after Texas, has the highest number of executions in the nation.

The race is complicated by the independent candidacy of Russ Potts, a Republican state senator who draws comparisons with John McCain and Ross Perot and has taken stands to the left of Kaine on some gay-rights and spending issues. Potts won’t win–he’s polling below 5 percent and has been excluded from the key debates–but he remains popular with editorial-page writers and country-club Republicans. No one is quite certain whether he will draw more votes from Kilgore or from Kaine. What is certain is that Kaine will not be elected governor unless he can hold his own in southwest Virginia, a “swing” region where traditionally Democratic voters are pulled in opposite directions by a yearning for populist economics and deep social conservatism.

Which brings us back to the harmonica. “Democrats need to do well in the southwest, but that isn’t always easy,” says United Mine Workers of America legislative director Bill Banig. “A Democratic candidate has to spend a lot of time in that part of the state, build up the comfort level.” Southwest Virginia’s coal mines and textile mills once made the overwhelmingly rural part of the state friendly to trade unionism and populist politics. But the shuttering of the mines and the devastating impact of free-trade agreements on the manufacturing sector have complicated the area’s politics. “A good Democratic message on economics–creating jobs, helping farms–can still play well there,” says Banig. “But the social issues, the gun issues, they can definitely pull in the other direction.” Thus, while the southwest elected a Democrat to Congress–Rick Boucher, who frequently earns 100 percent ratings from labor organizations–it gave Bush landslide margins in 2000 and 2004.

In 2001 Warner ran well in southwest Virginia with a campaign that emphasized pocketbook economics and the right to bear arms. Kaine is trying to re-create the strategy, but it’s harder for him than for Warner, who had never held public office and thus had no record for Republicans to attack. Kaine also lacks the wealth that allowed Warner to introduce himself to rural Virginians by spending millions of his own fortune to help promote high-tech development in the state’s poorest regions. Where Warner sponsored a NASCAR race team to break down cultural barriers, Kaine has added a values twist. To the extent that the generally prochoice and pro-gay rights Democrat addresses social issues, says the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, “Kaine’s language is conservative, Christian, rural.” His stump speech and radio ads recall his missionary work in Honduras in the late 1970s, and announce that “faith is central to my life.” The message is sincere: A devout Catholic, Kaine has a deep devotion to the church’s social gospel on poverty and debt-relief issues. But it is also politically advantageous, and this is one Democrat who refuses to cede the “values” turf to the opposition.

Kaine will not draw the votes of rabid social conservatives away from Kilgore, a favorite of antichoice groups like the Virginia Society for Human Life (which regularly repeats the comically inaccurate claim that “Kaine is the most liberal candidate in the history of Virginia”). The hope of Democrats is merely that Kaine’s “faith in action” message, along with his ability to add a nice harmonica line to gospel tunes, will earn their nominee a hearing from swing voters who need a comfort level with Democrats before they will listen to economic messages. If Kaine has built that comfort level by election eve, he may be pulled across the line by Cecil Roberts, the fiery populist president of the mine workers union, who plans to take a swing through coal country with the Democrat. Roberts made a similar swing with Warner in 2001, a mission that is credited with helping the urbane northern Virginia Democrat carry southwest Virginia counties on the way to a narrow 52-to-48 victory.

If Kaine wins on November 8, it will not be a case of magic striking twice; it will be a case of Democrats beginning to unlock the code of the South. Doing so will not prove that the party is indeed the national force that Dean and others trumpet. But it will suggest that, as Bill Banig argues, “Democrats don’t need to write the South off, they need to figure it out. And when they do figure out how to talk to people, when they make the effort to connect with them, Democrats can still win.”