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Mixing Politics, Pigskins

When Allen Talks, Football Jargon Flows

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page C01

As Sen. George Allen (Va.) contemplates a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, his prospects could come down to this key question: How many football metaphors can one nation stand?

Last month on the Senate floor, Allen, a former quarterback for the University of Virginia and son of the late Redskins coach of the same name, said critics of Condoleezza Rice, now secretary of state, "have used some bump-and-run defenses and tactics against her."

Sen. George Allen, playing catch while campaigning with Rep. Frank Wolf and Lisa Marie Cheney, refers often to "defense," "game balls" and the like. (Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)

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Talking about the Iraq war, he criticized Democrats for "Monday-morning quarterbacking."

When the GOP won a Senate seat in Louisiana in November, he said it "was like a double-reverse flea-flicker and a lateral."

As head of Senate Republicans' campaign efforts in 2004, he called his candidates in the southern states the "NFC South."

In Allen's world, primaries are "intrasquad scrimmages," his Senate staff is the "A-team," Senate recess is "halftime" and opponents are flagged for "pass interference."

If the electorate awarded points for football imagery, Allen would get the Heisman Trophy. But will voters find all this football talk to be presidential? That's a wild card. After all, tossing around a football didn't do much for former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp when he ran on Robert J. Dole's presidential ticket in 1996.

Aides occasionally roll their eyes at their boss's pigskin parlance, but they are powerless to block him. "It is as natural as breathing," attested Dick Wadhams, Allen's chief of staff, who figures Allen's style is a political asset. "It's part of his persona that kind of sets him apart from most folks," he said.

That's for certain. As head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the tobacco-chewing Allen held a news conference and tossed "game ball" footballs to his winning candidates, each ball inscribed with a "final score": the candidate's margin of victory.

A year earlier, Senate Republicans celebrated their achievements with a football-themed news conference at which Allen called Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) "our player-coach" and tossed a five-yard pass to Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). "We have a great quarterback, we have a great coach, we have a great game plan," Allen said. "We've had some good victories through this season. The second half of the season is coming up next year."

In the Allen lexicon, growth in payrolls became "more points on the board" and tax cuts meant lower "ticket prices" imposed by the government. And the Democrats? "Constant delay of game, constant holding, constant pass interference and, once in a while, even piling on," he said. The "Democratic huddle" decided "they didn't even want to put their players on the field."

No political situation lacks a football analogue. Years without elections are the "offseason." Primaries are the "preseason." Senate Republicans are President Bush's "teammates." Big political donors join a "Quarterback Club" or a "Special Teams" committee.

After campaign finance legislation ended unregulated donations to political parties, Allen was quoted as saying: "It's a whole new ballgame. There are no more skyboxes. We have to sell individual tickets."

After the bitter primary battle between George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2000, Allen sagely counseled: "In an intrasquad scrimmage, you don't need to be doing crackback blocks and twisting people's ankles."

Allen's football obsession appears to be as much calculation as instinct. At the Republican National Convention in New York last year, an aide accompanied Allen to his various appearances carrying a football for his boss to toss to audience members. Allen told Media General News Service in 2003 that when he uses NASCAR imagery "I get nothing but blank stares," but "at least when I use a football analogy about a quarter of the people know what I am talking about."

Allen's locker room tone has caused him some trouble. In 1994, the former Virginia governor said of the Democrats: "Let's enjoy knocking their soft teeth down their whiny throats."

Even today, the metaphors sometimes sail out of bounds. Discussing small gains against Democrats who were blocking Bush's judicial nominees, he said: "We're getting four yards every play. If you're getting four yards every play -- even if the field's 300 yards long -- you're going to keep moving down the field." On another, slightly less difficult issue, he described "a 200-yard field rather than a 100-yard field."

Allen used much of the same lingo -- "bump and run," "intrasquad scrimmage" -- as Virginia governor. When he won his Senate seat in 2000, he gave "game balls" to Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III (R ).

These days, Allen's underlings know to follow his playbook, indulging his incessant office chatter about yard lines and field position. "With Senator Allen, you just let him take the ball and run with it," said Daniel J. Allen, who worked for the senator on the National Republican Senatorial Committee and now is spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

Announcing the hiring of Wadhams as chief of staff, Allen said in a news release that the aide had a "winning record of outstanding performance for a quarter of a century managing effective Senate and Governor's offices with positive success in the campaign field."

Rejoined Wadhams: "I am honored to join the A-team."

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