"Timmy" Kaine? Really?

Up until then, the conference-call conversation had been politics as usual. It was rough, for sure, but about what you'd expect. In their preview of President Obama's bus tour through Southern swing states, you didn't expect Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, North Carolina GOP Chair Robin Hayes and his Virginia counterpart Pat Mullins to flatter the commander-in-chief.

But while making the legitimate point that Democratic politicians in Virginia weren't exactly anxious for a photo op with their party's leader, Mullins said one of the few exceptions was Obama's friend, 2012 Senate hopeful "Timmy Kaine." Over the phone, I could hear him smirking. We were suddenly back in the schoolyard, where we've been for the past few years, with the old (and lame) trick of needling some kid you don't like by making fun of his name.

Later that day, in a high school gym in Wilkes County, N.C., the president slipped in his own subtle snark during a serious pitch for his jobs bill, offering to "chop it up into some bite-sized pieces" so recalcitrant Republicans would understand it.

He smiled when he said it, the school smarty getting by on wit while making the bully boys even madder.

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Yes, I know. Politics is a contact sport and was ever so. But here in North Carolina — and, I expect everywhere, from even a glance at the polls — the public wants its representatives to grow up. They want cooperation — not standoffs — and results. They wish leaders would spend as much time figuring out how to solve the country's problems as they do plotting to be king of the playground.

Time to cue a chorus of Aretha Franklin's "Respect."

In 2011 the meanness for meanness' sake is making tough times even tougher to bear. The discourse resembles taunts that would merit a timeout if practiced by our children. Instead of setting an example, politicians have turned the dialogue of democracy into endless rounds of recess trash-talking.

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One example: "Our Occupy Wall Street is like your Tea Party? Nuh-uh."

At the time, did anyone realize how quickly the idea of decorum and civility would itself be hooted down? GOP debate audiences cheer executions, resembling a thumbs-up/thumbs-down crowd in ancient Rome. Country singer Hank Williams Jr. — known as much for rambunctious behavior as forhis music — at least got canned for thinking it would be a good idea to reference the president and Hitler in the same line.

You expect more from the folks charged with being our leaders and the long list vying for the job. Instead Herman Cain calls unsupportive African Americans "brainwashed" — like the guy who tells the girl who rejects him that he didn't like her anyway. (Now Cain's having his own "girl" troubles.)

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The only winners are the comedians. Jon Stewart's job is easy these days. When GOP politicians bent over backward to praise the takedown of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi without giving an ounce of credit to President Obama, the clips said it all and got plenty of laughs because of the ridiculousness of it all.

I recently asked Jim Clyburn if he's seen the tone change for the worse. An African American who lived through segregated times and fought to change them, the Democratic South Carolina congressman saw images of nooses faxed to his office and heard threats that weren't kid stuff during last year's vote on health care legislation.

"Of course it's different; the whole world is different," he said. "We didn't have the Internet. We didn't have 30-second sound bites. People sat down and talked about things, people discussed things. Today everything is driven by the sound bites … We've redefined civility in this country, and we might as well admit that.

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"There's an old adage that you must fight fire with fire," he added, "and that's why I think that as long as people get away with it, then they'll keep doing it."

And that brings us back to Kaine and his Virginia race. His probable GOP opponent next year is George Allen. Remember, he's the guy who lost his sure-thing Senate seat in 2006 after uttering an insult that left him persona non "macaca."

According to the polls, he and Kaine are running neck and neck.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and the Nieman Watchdog blog. She was national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.

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Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.