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Posted at 3:15 PM ET, 02/16/2011

Back from Middle East, Perriello will 'consider' running for Senate if Kaine doesn't

By Ben Pershing

Former Rep. Tom Perriello (D) said Wednesday that he would "consider" running to succeed retiring Virginia Sen. James Webb (D) in 2012, but only if Tim Kaine decides not to make the race.

In his first interview since Webb announced his decision last week, Perriello said he agreed with other prominent Virginia Democrats in hoping that Kaine -- the former governor and current Democratic National Committee chairman -- would decide to run for Senate. Virginians from both parties are waiting to hear Kaine's decision, even as some Democrats make the case that Perriello should run.

"It's obviously nice when people say that," Perriello said. "I think it's meant to be a compliment. At the same time I join many others in hoping Tim Kaine will step up in this spot. ... He'd be a great choice."

And if Kaine doesn't run, Perriello said, "I will consider it. Part of what I'm asking as a question is whether you can make more of an impact on people's lives from inside the system or outside the system."

Perriello lost his 5th congressional district seat in November after just one term, and he has been a busy man since leaving office. He was abroad when the Webb news broke, on a six-week trip to the Middle East that included work on Sudanese peace talks as well as a brief but dramatic stop in Egypt during the unrest there.

Before he was elected to Congress in 2008, Perriello worked on international peace and justice issues, spending time in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Afghanistan as well as Darfur. Soon after his House term ended in January, Perriello flew to Qatar to assist a coalition of advocacy groups in the ongoing peace talks there between the Sudanese government and rebel groups. He also visited Nairobi, trying to persuade rebel leaders there to rejoin the talks.

When protests erupted in Egypt against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, Perriello was asked to help on the ground by the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit that works to strengthen international democratic institutions. Perriello flew to Cairo but never made it out of the airport. He was detained and interrogated, and after 12 hours was on a plane back out of the country.

Perriello said his interrogators knew he was a former member of Congress, so he never really felt threatened. But it "just showed in the waning days of that regime how scared they were," he said.

Back in Virginia, ex-Sen. George Allen (R) has launched his bid to retake his former seat, and he will face at least one Republican foe. But the Democratic field is frozen until Kaine makes his move. Kaine is expected by some Democrats to make a decision on the race before Saturday's Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner. But the DNC chairman is currently on a national fundraising trip and won't be back in Virginia until Saturday morning, making it unclear whether he will adhere to that schedule.

"These decisions are more important than a short timeline," Perriello said of Kaine. "He should take the time he needs to decide if he feels called to do this. I wouldn't want him to rush it just because the dinner happens to be this weekend."

While most members of the Democratic establishment, including Sen. Mark Warner (D) and Webb himself, have made clear that Kaine is their first choice, Perriello is popular in the liberal blogosphere. An enthusastic "Draft Perriello" movement has begun online.

In addition to Perriello and Kaine, several other Democrats have been mentioned as possible contenders. They include Rep. Gerald Connolly, ex-Rep. Rick Boucher, 2009 gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, state Sen. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (Fairfax), state Sen. A. Donald McEachin (Richmond). State Del. David L. Englin (Alexandria) and a handful of others. Former Rep. Glenn Nye (D) ruled himself out of the contest Friday.

While Kaine's resume for the slot is obvious - he's a popular former governor - Perriello's case is more complicated.

Perriello made his first foray into elected politics in 2008, when he unseated Rep. Virgil Goode (R) by 727 votes after a hard-fought campaign. Perriello and other Democrats statewide benefited from having President Obama at the top of the ticket, but Perriello actually outperformed Obama - he won with 50 percent of the vote, while Obama took 48 percent and lost the district to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

In 2010 Perriello fell to Republican Robert Hurt. But Perriello did put up a fight, losing by just 4 points even as another freshman Democrat, Nye, lost by 11 points. Turnout in the 5th district was the highest in the state, which is partly attributable to the enthusiasm of Perriello supporters in a year when Democrats in many places chose to stay home. "The reason we did so much better than the national average in a very tough area is we worked our tails off," Perriello said.

Perriello raised $3.8 million for his 2010 campaign, a formidable amount given the district. He has the ability to tap into liberal fundraising networks across the country, and could expect help from ActBlue and environmental groups. He is an indefatigable campaigner who has earned respect, even from some Republicans, for his work ethic on the trail.

But Perriello would also have obstacles to overcome. He is relatively inexperienced in politics, particularly compared to Allen, and is not well-known outside his district. He has few ties to Northern Virginia, where an increasingly large share of the state's voters reside. And he is closely identified with Obama's health care and cap-and-trade bills, which may not be an asset in a general election race.

Recent successful Virginia Democratic candidates - Kaine, Warner and, to a lesser extent, Webb - have run as moderates, and some in the party worry privately that Perriello will be too easy to label as a liberal who simply follows Obama's lead. Yet Perriello's actual profile is complex - he supports gun rights, has a mixed record on abortion and voted against Obama's 2009 budget because he thought it didn't do enough to address the deficit.

Perriello said he doesn't believe there's any one formula for a winning Democratic campaign in Virginia.

"I think pundits often overthink the 'profiles,'" he said. "I think voters are often smart enough to have a gut reaction to the candidates, to say, 'Here's a guy who shares my values and can get things done.'

By Ben Pershing  | February 16, 2011; 3:15 PM ET
Categories:  Ben Pershing, Election 2012, George F. Allen, James Webb, Timothy M. Kaine, Tom Perriello, U.S. Senate  
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Thank you for the article.

Now....Run Perriello run!

Posted by: mikefromArlington | February 16, 2011 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Tom should run! Both Tom Perriello & Tim Kaine would make terrific senators.

Posted by: TheGreenMiles | February 16, 2011 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Perriello and Kaine have been down-the-line cheerleaders for the big-government, big-spending views of Obama, Pelosi & Reid. Virginia voters overwhelmingly rejected that agenda last fall.

George Allen will be a strong Republican candidate in any event. And if Democrats nominate an Obama clone, that will further enhance Allen's prospects.

Posted by: jrmil | February 16, 2011 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Another leftist sucker who followed Fidel Obama off the socialist cliff. By all means, bring him on..

Posted by: wewintheylose1 | February 16, 2011 7:31 PM | Report abuse

"Perriello said he doesn't believe there's any one formula for a winning Democratic campaign in Virginia."

And that is EXACTLY why I would like him to run. Everything mentioned as a negative here means nothing. Obama himself was the greatest anomaly to win a presidential election: he defied every label, and obstacle, from his lack of experience to his race, birthplace and ties to controversial Chicago figures.

The minute we start thinking that picking a prior winning candidate is going to produce a predictable outcome in a future race, is when we lose sight of how unpredictable most things in life really are. I will support Kaine if he's the candidate, but I hardly expect there will be hoards of people taking to the streets to elect a candidate that many Dems will assume is going to win this race as he has in the past. I can see that as a bit of handicap actually.

Posted by: csread | February 16, 2011 7:41 PM | Report abuse

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