U.S. SENATE RACE
Allen Backers Teem Southside
Thursday, April 20, 2006
WAKEFIELD, Va., April 19 -- The "Sportsmen For George Allen" signs started popping up along the flat countryside of Southside Virginia about 10 miles shy of the town. At the event itself -- in a rural clearing to the south -- nothing short of a sea of bright blue Allen paraphernalia bobbed through the crowd.
More accurately, the Allen fans were the crowd. At the 58th annual Shad Planking, where Virginia's political set heralds campaign season each April, it was hard to find someone who doesn't plan to vote for the Republican U.S. senator this fall. And it was hard to see the candidate himself as he made his way slowly through an adoring throng of beer-drinkers, cigar-smokers and gobblers of the planking's famous plates of fish, coleslaw and beans.
All of which raises two possibilities regarding this fall's U.S. Senate race in Virginia: Either Allen's fall opponent has a steep hill to climb, or the first-term senator and former governor just basked in the friendliest crowd he's likely to see all year.
It's hard to know which version is right. Allen's folksy charm and plain-spoken stands for gun rights, low taxes and conservative values elevated him to wild popularity among a broad swath of Virginians. But Allen has also stood closely by President Bush on such matters as national security and the war in Iraq, and he may be vulnerable now that increasing numbers of Americans are questioning the president's policies.
"My advice to George Allen is to run like hell," said Wilson Turner, 63, a manufacturing engineer from Suffolk. Turner is an avid supporter of Allen -- he said he sends the campaign $100 a month -- but he listened closely to James Webb address a small crowd at the planking Wednesday.
Webb, a decorated Marine who served as Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan, is one of two Democrats seeking their party's nomination to challenge Allen in the fall. The other is Harris Miller, a party activist and former technology lobbyist who also made a quick stop in Wakefield.
"You are very impressive," Turner told Webb under Wednesday's deep blue sky and the tall pines and hardwoods of Wakefield. Webb also had hundreds of signs lining the roads around the shad planking.
"If George Allen doesn't make it," Turner concluded, "I won't be upset if you're the one who does."
Miller, who is formally launching his campaign with a statewide tour, had a luncheon with Richmond area ministers in the morning and went to the shad planking after that for a brief visit.
The planking dates to the 1930s, beginning as a small gathering of friends to celebrate the James River running of shad -- the oily, bony fish smoked for the occasion on wood planks over an open flame.
The Wakefield Ruritan Club took over in 1949 and has hosted the event ever since on the wooded property of a sportsmen's club near Route 460 in Sussex County, about an hour southeast of Richmond.
Over the years, the gathering has evolved into a political gossip festival -- a place for candidates to see and be seen and for the curious to speculate about the likely winners and losers of the year's coming campaign season.