By Tim Craig and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 19, 2006
RICHMOND -- The nationwide fallout from controversial remarks Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) made last week has given Democrats new hope in a race many thought would be difficult to win in the historically conservative state.
Before Allen insulted a native Fairfax County man of Indian descent, many Democratic officials were privately doubtful that James Webb could mount an aggressive challenge to the former governor and possible 2008 presidential candidate.
But Allen's remarks to S.R. Sidarth, 20 -- which included saying "welcome to America" -- are generating new support for the Webb campaign and energizing Democratic activists.
"Before this week, I thought it would be a very tough race for Jim Webb," said Martin Tillett, a self-described Democrat who is vice president of the Spring Bank Community Association in Fairfax County. He had already opposed Allen for his conservative positions. "This week has just added fuel on the fire as far as I am concerned," he said.
Even Northern Virginia Republicans who support Allen say they are a bit worried.
Rob Jackson, 55, a lawyer from McLean, said he still plans to vote for Allen, despite what he called "a stupid remark that a senator shouldn't have said." Jackson added that the Senate race is probably closer now. "It certainly hurt George Allen," he said. "It was a dumb thing to do."
Political analysts also said they sense a more competitive race.
"If the race wasn't on Democrats' radar screen before, it is now," said Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report.
A week of national headlines -- none good for Allen -- has the potential to change the Virginia campaign from a Democratic long shot to one that could help decide which party controls the U.S. Senate next year, political analysts said. But only if Webb, who has struggled in his first run for office, can translate the temporary boost into lasting momentum.
Democratic activists across the state have complained for weeks that Webb hasn't been visible enough, was slow in hiring staff and had limited knowledge about many issues. In a debate last month, Allen forced Webb to admit he did not know about the future shipping terminal at Craney Island in Portsmouth.
Webb, an Iraq war opponent who is a former Marine and was secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, still faces a relentless campaigner who last month had 10 times as much to spend on his reelection bid.
Republicans say he can't win, regardless of Allen's recent remarks.
"Webb doesn't have his policy ducks in a row, and he doesn't have his campaign ducks in a row," said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax). "Is Allen running a perfect campaign? No, or we wouldn't be having this conversation. But they certainly know how to run a campaign."
Dick Wadhams, Allen's campaign manager, said: "The fundamentals of this race have not changed, which are the Democrats have a candidate who is incapable of taking a position on any issue."
Republicans also said Democrats run the risk of making too much of Allen's remarks.
Allen's comments "helped energize the other side," said Eric Lundberg, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Party. "To the extent they keep harping on it, it will energize our own base."
Still, Democrats say Webb's campaign has been renewed because of Allen's remarks, particularly in Northern Virginia, where about 30 percent of the state's voters live. In last year's gubernatorial race, Timothy M. Kaine (D) trounced former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R) by more than 20 points in some parts of Northern Virginia.
Traffic to Webb's Internet site doubled on several consecutive days this week, campaign officials said, and several Democratic leaders, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), began asking their supporters to donate to Webb.
"We've always said that when Virginians got to see the real George Allen, they were not going to like what they see," said Phil Singer, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Because of public dissatisfaction over the war and President Bush, Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, says his analysis of current polls shows that Democrats could pick up five Senate seats -- Pennsylvania, Montana, Ohio, Rhode Island and Missouri -- if the election were held today. Democrats need to win six seats to retake control.
"This whole Virginia election could be the search for the sixth seat that could turn over control to the Democrats," Sabato said.
Last Friday, while speaking at a GOP rally in southwestern Virginia, Allen singled out Sidarth, a Webb volunteer, and called him "Macaca." He also said: "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."
The term "macaca" refers to a genus of monkey and is considered an ethnic slur in some cultures. Allen apologized, saying that he did not know what the word meant and that it was a play on "Mowhak," a nickname given to Sidarth by Allen's campaign staff because of his haircut. Allen's campaign has responded to the incident by accusing Webb of tolerating anti-Semitism.
During Webb's Democratic primary campaign against lobbyist Harris Miller, Webb's campaign distributed a flier in southwestern Virginia that included a caricature of Miller with wads of money coming out of his pocket. Miller, who is Jewish, decried the flier as anti-Semitic. Webb has said the flier was not intended to be offensive.
"Those anti-Semitic fliers are going to be an issue going forward in this entire campaign," Wadhams said.
At the same time, Allen's recent comments are providing Democrats and others with an opportunity to talk about the senator's past controversies involving race.
As a young man, Allen had a fondness for the Confederate flag, which he later said he saw only as a symbol of youthful rebellion. Later, when he was governor in the mid-1990s, Allen opposed the creation of a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Webb, who once said the Confederate memorial in Arlington "has a special place in my life," said he does not plan to make an issue of Allen's past.
In his past races, Allen has successfully staved off charges of racial intolerance. During his 2000 bid for Senate, Allen campaign aides said he received 17 percent of the black vote, but some political strategists question that number.
Del. A. Donald McEachin, a black Democrat who represents Richmond, said African Americans will decisively turn out to vote for Webb this year -- even though many have criticized his position on affirmative action.
"The fact you would call someone a species of monkey is offensive," McEachin said.
Amid charges of racism and anti-Semitism, political leaders are braced for a polarizing campaign, especially if it becomes part of a national fight for control of the Senate.
"Any guy who made 'born fighting' his campaign slogan is not going to shy away from confrontation," Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said of Webb. "And George fancies himself as a tough guy, so let them go at it."