His first appearance Saturday as Clinton’s vice presidential pick received largely positive reviews — perhaps because the expectations were so low.
He has earned — and embraced — an image of a low-key, less-than-dynamic stage presence, and his record as a public speaker has been somewhat uneven. But he’ll have less breathing room when he takes center stage at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Kaine’s record is one of a pragmatic, even cautious leader. He was well-liked, but known more for his electoral success than his legislative record. And his understated persona is a departure from the traditional attack-dog persona many presidential candidates seek.
Responding to those who have spoke less than kindly about his demeanor, he told “Meet the Press” in late June, “They’re true. I am boring.”
But Kaine’s long-time friend and fellow senator Mark Warner said Tuesday that his fellow Virginian’s tone and tenor make him the perfect antidote to GOP nominee Donald Trump — something that Warner believes will be on display in his speech.
“I think you’ll see somebody whose basic humanity and decency will come through,” Warner said in an interview with CNN. “And in a world where we have too much politics of personal destruction, I think that will be a pretty refreshing sign for an awful lot of folks.”
Kaine’s record as a public speaker, however, is somewhat uneven. His first major speech in front of a national audience was when he gave the Democratic rebuttal to George W. Bush’s State of the Union in 2006. He drew a lukewarm assessment — “The Daily Show” mocked Kaine’s nervous habit of arching his eyebrow, something that Kaine’s political team would later turn into a graphic on t-shirts and buttons.
But Kaine has had his moments. He was lauded for his heartfelt remarks at the memorial for the victims for the Virginia Tech tragedy. Kaine struck an emotional and powerful chord at a time when his entire state was in mourning. Shortly after the speech, his approval rating as governor was near 80%.
He wasn’t able to keep up the sky-high number after that, however. His governorship was hit hard by the great recession, which led to massive budget shortfalls and standoffs with the Republican-led General Assembly. Term-limited in 2013, he left office with an approval rating under 50% and Republicans swept all three statewide offices in the race to replace him.
Despite his lagging poll numbers, Kaine remained in the public eye through his roll as DNC chairman. When Sen. Jim Webb decided not to run for re-election, Kaine jumped into the race. Running arm-in arm with President Obama in 2012, Kaine was swept into office, outperforming the President in Virginia. During his time in the Senate, he has enjoyed healthy favorable ratings, part of the reason the Clinton decided to add him to the ticket.
He also has had his moments as a speaker. The day Barack Obama officially received the Electoral College votes that would earn him the presidency, Kaine gave a passionate speech about racial reconciliation in the Virginia State Capitol beneath a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“He wrote every word of that speech himself and was particularly proud of the way it was received,” former personal aide Beau Cribbs said. “He puts a lot of effort into every speech, but when there is a lot on the line, he seems to take it to another level.”
And he has found a way to be different. Early during his tenure in the Senate, Kaine became the first member to deliver a floor speech entirely in Spanish. The address was a pitch for comprehensive immigration reform and displayed a skill that turned out to be an important asset in the Clinton selection process.
However, nothing will compare to the stage that Kaine takes on Wednesday night. It will not be completely unfamiliar territory for the senator, as he spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. But his spot then was not in prime-time and it was in a large football stadium, where much of the audience was not paying close attention. Now he will be speaking in prime-time and following heavy hitters like Obama himself.
It is a big moment for a muted politician. A moment that could set the stage for the next few months as he and Clinton begin their battle for the White House.