NEW YORK, Aug. 31 -- Virginia Sen. George Allen was on Manhattan's West 47th Street early Tuesday morning, peering down the back of a man's shirt.
"You doing Minnie Pearl here?" he asked Ray Adams, spotting a "Size L" tag stuck to his polo shirt. Adams, a retired newspaper distributor from Stuart, Fla., played along with the gag. An admirer of Allen's football coach father, Adams had stopped the senator as he was leaving a TV interview.
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), center, with wife Susan, jokes with constituents at a convention reception aboard the USS Intrepid.
(Melina Mara For The Washington Post)
"Well, that's good," said Allen, continuing to inspect the tag. "It's made in the U.S.A."
Just about everyone in politics agrees that Allen's strong suit is his ability to connect with people.
"He can talk with anyone," said Randy Frederick, chairman of the South Dakota Republican Party, whose delegation Allen addressed at breakfast Tuesday.
"It's not a put-on. It's extremely genuine, like W," said Richard Kelly, 52, a Greenwich, Conn., investor who has contributed about $100,000 to GOP Senate candidates over the years.
Just about everyone in politics also believes that if Allen has aspirations for 2008, he'll have to prove that he has the gravitas and drive to match his people skills.
"Everyone is talking about Allen's national ambitions, but I don't know when that happens for him unless he really wants to get in the fight," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst with the Cook Political Report. "The next move is up to him."
This is a critical year for the affable former governor, 52, who is fond of invoking the sports adages of his father, the late Redskins coach George Allen. As head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he is responsible for financing and nurturing GOP candidates for the Senate, where his party holds a 51-seat majority.
The position has allowed Allen the chance to travel the country and earn the battle-tested trust of fellow senators as well as establish ties with big-money supporters who could finance a national campaign.
Chairmanship of the committee has traditionally been a springboard to bigger things. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and former majority leader and retired ambassador George Mitchell (D-Maine) are among the alumni. Some observers think a Nov. 2 GOP performance that tops expectations could help boost Allen into the first tier of Senate possibilities for the 2008 Republican presidential ticket, which includes Frist, John McCain (Ariz.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Rick Santorum (Pa).
"The assumption is he's running for president in 2008," said an aide to a top Senate Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Allen and his camp actively discourage such talk. With control of the Senate far from a certainty and a potentially expensive 2006 reelection bid ahead -- if multimillionaire Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) challenges him -- Allen's inner circle maintains strict silence on 2008, focusing on "a game at a time."
"My father always told his players, 'The future is now,' " Allen said. "You pay attention to the task at hand. The future takes care of itself."