Barack Obama could do worse than Virginia Governor Tim Kaine as a ticket-mate.

Kaine is a smart, articulate and principled attorney who spent much of his legal career making real the promise of open housing for people of color and people with disabilities. As a lawyer, he was a stalwart defender of civil rights and civil liberties who courageously challenged Virginia death penalty abuses.

Kaine learned to speak Spanish fluently while working with the poor in Central America and then came home to graduate with high marks from Harvard Law School. He could easily have gone corporate; instead he went to the grassroots, focusing in on fair-housing advocacy in Virginia and teaching legal ethics at the University of Richmond Law School.

When Kaine entered politics, the affable contender went from strength to strength. After winning election to the Richmond City Council and then serving successfully at that city’s mayor, he beat a right-wing Republican with ties to the Bush administration in an edgy race for lieutenant governor that was decided just weeks after the September 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon.

Four years later, he beat a former Republican state attorney general in an intense contest for governor. Smeared for his opposition to the death penalty and support for responsible fiscal policies — which in the language of Republican attack ads translates as “raising taxes — Kaine proved to be a remarkably agile contender. He piled up votes in the liberal Washington suburbs while holding his own in rural areas where his ability to go less Harvard and more homespun played well.

As governor, he has been both progressive and effective — maintaining the responsible approach to budgeting initiated by former Governor Mark Warner, launching bold land conservation initiatives, making moves to bar smoking in a tobacco state where such a stance was once considered politically impossible and responding to the Virginia Tech massacre in a caring yet conscientious manner that won wide praise.

So Kaine really is a very attractive contender for the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that he will be Obama’s running-mate.

While casual commentators suggest that Kaine’s addition to the ticket would put the potential swing state of Virginia “into play,” the reality is that Virginia is already competitive — thanks to the same shifting political demographics that have seen the state elect two Democratic governors and a Democratic senator in recent statewide contests and that caused campaigners for John Kerry to consider making a play for the state in 2004.

And Kaine’s selection would require Obama to spend more time explaining his choice than this presidential candidate – or any party leader involved in a high-stakes national campaign — is inclined to do.

Kaine’s a devout Catholic who cherishes the “seamless garment” pro-life arguments of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who as Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago advocated for the defense of all human life as part of a broad social and economic justice ethic.

Unlike Obama, who is a supporter of capital punishment, Kaine has a long record of speaking and acting in opposition to the the death penalty. He has presided over executions as governor — explaining that, as a lawyer, he accepts even laws that go against his personal faith — but he has also vetoed five death penalty expansion bills since becoming governor. And in June of this year, he commuted the death sentence of Percy Levar Walton — a Virginian convicted and sentenced to death for three murders — to life in prison without parole. Testing showed that Walton had an I.Q. of 66 and may have lacked the cognitive skills to understand his crime and the punishment he faced, but that subtlety is unlikely to be highlighted in Republican attack ads.

In another deviation from Obama, Kaine expresses what he describes as a “faith-based opposition to abortion.” The Virginian is strongly opposed to late-term abortion and is involved with the group Democrats For Life of America, an organization that embraces many of the values outlined by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. While some Democrats like to fantasize that an Obama-Kaine ticket might attract votes from anti-abortion social conservatives, it could also alienate – or, at least, unsettle — feminists who backed Hillary Clinton and have yet to fully embrace Obama’s candidacy.

Finally, Kaine has never served in the U.S. House or Senate, meaning that an Obama-Kaine ticket would have a combined three years of federal experience, no military record and limited long-term standing on the foreign-policy front.

So why is there so much talk about the prospect of an Obama-Kaine ticket?

Why are Obama aides feeding the fire? Why is Kaine stoking it?

Simple.

Kaine, a passionate proponent of racial justice throughout his adult life and a genuine believer in the prospect of “change we can believe in,” was among the first prominent officials in the country to back Obama. And, as governor, he worked hard and smart to prevent Clinton from gaining ground in Virginia’s February primary.

Obama owes Kaine. And senator from Illinois genuinely likes the governor.

There is a very real chance that Kaine — who is term limited and who is unlikely to have a shot at a U.S. Senate seat anytime soon — will end up in an Obama administration. And there is every reason to believe that Kaine could obtain a high-ranking spot. Indeed, with his extensive legal experience in a variety of relevant areas, he is a very attractive prospect for attorney general.

But there’s a stature gap. Most Americans haven’t heard of Kaine.

So for the next week or so, he will be much talked about as a vice presidential prospect.

That will garner Obama good headlines in Virginia, and it will make Kaine a national persona.

Ultimately, Obama is likely to select a running-mate with more federal and foreign experience.

But the talk of an Obama-Kaine ticket will have served both Obama and Kaine — not to mention the administration in which the two men may yet serve together.