Virginia's hotly contested Senate race between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen has been getting national attention since early 2011, but it remains exactly where it was back then: a dead heat.

The airwaves have been flooded with ads, both positive and negative. The two candidates raised millions of dollars and outside groups have spent millions more on their behalf. They've rubbed elbows with the presidential candidates, sent their wives around the state to vouch for them and debated each other twice.

Still, nearly every poll shows the two former governors neck-and-neck, a deadlock one of them hope to finally break Thursday when Kaine and Allen square off for their first televised debate, the first chance many Virginians will have to see them.

First debate
When: Thursday, 12 p.m.
Where: Capitol One Bank Auditorium, McLean
Host: Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and NBC4
TV: NBC4 (Live). Replayed Sunday after Press Pass
Second debate
When: Oct. 8
Where: Richmond
Host: AARP, League of Women Voters Virginia, WVCE Public Radio and WTVR CBS 6 TV
Third debate
When: Oct. 18
Where: Blacksburg
Host: WSLS NBC 10 and Virginia Tech

"These two campaigns have tried just about everything to break away from their rival and nothing has really moved the needle," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. "Not record spending, not combative rhetoric, not presidential candidates in Virginia every few days. All indications are this is going to remain very close down to the wire."

Thursday's debate in McLean is the first of three televised meetings planned for Kaine and Allen, whose race could decide which party controls the Senate. It will also be the first chance for many Virginians to see the candidates and both will have to use the opportunity to win over voters who until now have only known them through the barrage of ads both sides have been running for months.

"Kaine is going to have to defend his support for tax increases and Allen is going to have to defend his belief that it's off the table," said Bob Holsworth, a longtime political analyst in Virginia. "On health care, Kaine has to defend Obamacare. On the other hand, Allen has to find a way to convince people he's not for people to be kicked off insurance for preexisting conditions."

Kaine has outraised Allen $10.3 million to $8 million, though both have spent much of their war chests. In addition to the $12 million in ads being run by outside groups on both sides, Kaine has reserved $4.5 million in airtime while Allen set aside $5 million.

Dan Allen, a senior adviser to Allen, said a new round of negative ads Kaine is running -- targeting Allen's gubernatorial and Senate record on fiscal issues and abortion -- shows Kaine's camp is worried.

Kaine spokesman Brandi Hoffine defended the ads, saying past records show voters how candidates will serve in Washington.

Allen has been contrasting his views on energy and defense with those of President Obama, a close ally of Kaine's, even though Kaine has distanced himself from the president on both issues.

Kaine has emphasized his fiscal conservatism in an attempt to win over moderate voters.

Deadlocked as they are, Kaine and Allen could end up relying on the performance of the presidential candidates in Virginia to decide their race, depending on Obama or Romney to draw voters to the polls, said Craig Brians, a political science professor at Virginia Tech.

"The main thing is the relentless drive to the center by both candidates," Brians said, "which seems to me like exactly what you want to do in a presidential election where it could tilt either way for Obama or Romney."