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Summer's last holiday sees campaigns throttle up

Monday - 9/3/2012, 8:58pm  ET

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AP Political Writer

BUENA VISTA, Va. - Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen began the final, full-throttle sprint to election day in this year's, expensive, trash-talking U.S. Senate race Monday amid the whirr and click of bagpipers, the brassy strains of high school marching bands and, most fittingly, the startling growl of 1960s vintage stock cars.

But both candidates checked the biting personal tone and venomous rhetoric they've flashed toward each other in debates and in ads backed by unprecedented millions of dollars at the city limits Monday for Buena Vista's traditional Labor Day Parade.

Since the parade began nearly 40 years ago, it has become a perennial part of public life in Virginia -- a modest event rich in simple, unpretentious small-town charm.

There's the grace of Will Harris' 1913 Model T Ford. There's the oddity of Virgil Goode, a former Republican Virginia congressman, introducing himself to parade spectators as a presidential candidate on the obscure Constitution Party ticket. There is the gaudy: a 6-foot papier mache elephant in the back of a pickup truck festooned with Allen placards. And there was the simple poignancy of Sen. Mark R. Warner veering off the one-mile parade route and bounding onto the front porch of 86-year-old Vivian Cash's white frame bungalow to give her a peck on the cheek, something he has done faithfully each year on parade day.

Slash-and-burn may work in the cities and suburbs where people often don't even know their neighbors, Marie Shiraki, a 12-year resident of Buena Vista, said. But it's just bad manners in this bucolic village on the Blue Ridge Mountains' western slopes, a place which a sign heralds as home to "6,002 happy citizens and 3 old grouches."

"It's just not socially acceptable here," said Shiraki, 50, a mother of eight who owns and operates a landscaping business with her husband. An undecided voter, she sat quietly, straining to hear detailed policy proposals that are so rare in politics today. As it was, she was content with dueling speeches from Kaine and Allen that were at least civil.

"When you live in a small town like this, you have to get along," she said.

"This is small-town America," said Ed Smith, a reporter for the News-Gazette of Lexington, the weekly newspaper that serves Buena Vista and Rockbridge County. "When people see each other every day, face to face, you're not going to be as mean."

Allen and Kaine knew it, too. You don't win statewide elections for governor, as both have done, and not know the temperament and rhythms of communities in your state -- when to employ scorched-earth politics and call the opponent out by name and when to resist the temptation.

In other venues, Allen has derided Kaine, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, as the "handpicked candidate of Democratic President Barack Obama," a claim that makes Kaine bristle. Kaine responds by calling Allen a bare-knuckled partisan who was a pliant member of a Republican-ruled Senate that went on a deficit-spending spree while George W. Bush was in the White House.

But not Monday.

Allen, during his 10-minute speech, called for letting taxes expire on all income levels, easing federal environmental oversight of coal and repealing the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known more commonly as Obamacare. His loyalists cheered and hooted, and Democrats gave it a Bronx cheer.

Kaine, speaking first, repeated his well-worn call to allow tax cuts for the richest Americans, enacted during the Bush administration, to expire. Kaine's backers roared their approval while the Republicans booed.

But that was it. No shouting matches. No name-calling. No pushing or shoving.

"That just wouldn't be done here," Allen said in an interview after his remarks. "It's just not the way it's done in Buena Vista."

Buena Vista represents only a momentary respite from the meanness of a campaign whose outcome could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Groups independent of either candidate will only ramp up an already aggressive schedule of attack ads with the start of the fall campaign. Kaine heads on Tuesday to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, a city he chose for the convention during his two years as DNC chairman, on the same day Obama campaigns in Norfolk.

Elizabeth LaGrua of Staunton will be back at it first thing Tuesday. She sat in the front row holding a sign that Allen liked so much he read it to the crowd: "Save our economy, homes and farms." He omitted the last line: "Vote Democratic."

"I'll be out there because I care about Obamacare and they want to get rid of it," she said.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)