'Macaca Moment' Marks a Shift in Momentum
Sunday, September 3, 2006
Sen. George Allen (R) will saddle up tomorrow for his Labor Day trot down the main drag in Buena Vista, the traditional kickoff of Virginia's election season, and what might be the toughest test of his decades-long political career.
The tobacco-chewing, boot-wearing former governor -- whose horse ride along Magnolia Avenue is legendary -- has never lost a statewide campaign. He spent the first half of 2006 courting out-of-state voters who might make him president, and, in early polls, he led former Navy secretary James Webb by double digits in his bid to return to the Senate to represent Virginia.
That was before Allen was forced to apologize for calling a Democratic aide "macaca" at a campaign stop and welcoming the young man of Indian descent to "America and the real world of Virginia." In a flash, his presidential dreams have given way to a tougher than expected reelection campaign.
"We have a real race," said Stuart Rothenberg, who edits the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that tracks elections nationwide. "The race has changed fundamentally."
Allen's "macaca moment" -- a term that has rapidly become part of America's political lexicon -- has breathed new life into Webb, a former Republican and Vietnam war hero who worked for Ronald Reagan.
An author and screenwriter, Webb was an early critic of the Iraq war and is by some accounts the most credible candidate in the nation to give voice to the Democratic Party's anger at President Bush's foreign policy.
But it is far from clear that the first-time candidate has the time, money or personality to oust Allen from the Senate and help Democrats take over.
Webb has been cold to the idea of personally raising money and sometimes is icy on the stump. His occasional scowl contrasts sharply with Allen's rosy-cheeked smile. At the only debate so far, Webb was outmatched by Allen, who made the first-time candidate seem unprepared.
And while money appears to be coming in faster now -- candidates don't have to report their quarterly fundraising results until Oct. 15 -- Webb is struggling to put together in a matter of months the kind of statewide network of supporters and campaign volunteers that Allen began assembling decades ago.
Allen's campaign manager said the "fundamental dynamics" of the race with Webb haven't changed. "We still have a candidate who has served as governor and senator and has a clear record of accomplishment," Dick Wadhams said.
And political observers note that Allen will use his fundraising advantage to remind people of the goodwill he earned as the chief executive of a conservative, Southern state. That will make it tough for Webb to overcome.
Rothenberg said Webb has an opportunity, but now has to make the most of it.