By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"He's still got to make the sale," Rothenberg said.
But Democrats say the state is changing in their favor. In the six years since Allen last campaigned, a half-million people have moved into the state, many of them immigrants and, some say, less conservative than voters of old.
"Virginia is becoming a more Democratic state, in what is shaping to be a Democratic year," said New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the chairman of the Democratic campaign committee in the Senate, which has promised to help finance Webb.
"We think this is a neck-and-neck race," he said.A Silver Bullet
The war is supposed to be Jim Webb's silver bullet.
This week, he will see his son, Jimmy, deploy with his Marine unit to a war that his father warned against years ago. The elder Webb, himself a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, said he will continue to wear desert combat boots to symbolize what he calls a failed war that threatens to divert attention from terrorism.
"It is in total disarray," Webb said about the nation's foreign policy in a speech last month. "The Bush administration has failed to bring an end to the occupation of Iraq. The Middle East is in danger of spinning out of control."
But the very qualities that made Democrats drool over his biography -- war hero, GOP Navy secretary, early war critic -- make him more a foreign policy wonk than a fiery antiwar activist.
Unlike Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Webb has not called for pulling out troops on a specific date. Unlike Connecticut's Ned Lamont, who whipped up antiwar sentiment to defeat Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in that state's Democratic primary, Webb does not talk about the war at every campaign stop.
And unlike Democratic candidates across the country, Webb has not demanded the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Instead, Webb offers a formula for leaving Iraq that includes refusing to build permanent bases in that country and working with allies in the region.
"The number one issue in Virginia is the Iraq war," Webb said. "People are very upset about where we are in the Middle East. The question becomes: 'Is there a way for us to extricate ourselves from Iraq and still maintain stability in the region?' "
Allen's campaign accuses Webb of failing to offer specifics. "Even his signature issue of Iraq . . . is still hazy at best and contradictory at worst," said Wadhams, who declined to make Allen available for an interview, saying, "I'm going to speak for him."
Allen's position on the war is virtually identical to Bush's -- "We can stand American troops down as the Iraqi military stands up," said Wadhams. And he touts Allen's membership on the Senate's foreign relations committee.
But the Virginia Republican has resisted using some of the harshest rhetoric coming from Bush and Rumsfeld about "cut-and-run" Democrats, whom they accuse of appeasing terrorists like some appeased Nazis in another era.
Asked whether Allen thinks Webb is a "cut-and-run" Democrat, Wadhams said, "I don't know. He's clearly identified himself as a Lamont Democrat."Changing Suburbs
Despite the national furor over Iraq, the fate of Allen's future in the Senate may be decided much closer to home, in rapidly growing Northern Virginia.
Allen did well there in 2000, handily beating incumbent Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) in Loudoun County by 15 percentage points and winning 36 of the county's 38 precincts. His win was consistent with a recent GOP strategy that counted on big victories in the region's outer suburbs.
But Loudoun has grown and developed since then, adding 82,000 people and thousands of homes. In 2005, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine stunned the GOP by grabbing the county, winning Loudoun by 6 percentage points and capturing 45 of the county's 56 precincts in his gubernatorial bid.
"A lot of the suburban communities that had been for a long time so reliably Republican are really open to the right kind of message," Kaine said. "Some of the conventional wisdom about the electorate is beginning to change. I don't see those trends reversing. I see those accelerating."
Webb said he's counting on winning the votes of the "new faces, new blood in that region who are receptive to the values of the Democratic Party."
But that could still be tough for a Democrat like Webb, who is himself a newcomer to the politics of the region and has little experience with local issues.
Republican Rep. Frank R. Wolf, who has represented Loudoun for more than two decades, said he believes the county is no less conservative now than it has been for many years. Kaine's victory there was a fluke, he said.
"I know Northern Virginia better than Governor Kaine. I know Northern Virginia better than [former governor] Mark Warner," Wolf said recently. "I don't think there's been a change."
Wolf said voters in Northern Virginia want candidates who address their issues: the war in Iraq, transportation and education. "I don't advise anybody," he said. "But I think a candidate running in Northern Virginia ought to talk about . . . how you're going to deal with this transportation issue. People are concerned about safe schools."
Allen has already begun to use his huge campaign war chest to do just as Wolf recommends.
Earlier this summer, Allen spent more than $1 million running commercials in Northern Virginia touting his efforts to keep people safe. Last week, he unveiled a TV ad that talks about education and his support for a national innovation act.
"I want today's young minds to create tomorrow's great discoveries," Allen says in the ad.
Webb has yet to advertise, having raised far less money than Allen. But there are signs that his finances are improving: a new Web site, a bigger staff and more offices. Webb consultant Steve Jarding said Allen's "macaca" comment tripled the Democrat's fundraising.
"Webb is now being looked at by people all over the country," Jarding said.
"This is a referendum on George Allen," he added. "Do we want the rubber stamp? Is he the nice guy that he said he was?"Picking the Lock
Allen's campaign workers say they welcome those questions. And national Republicans express confidence that the senator can answer them for Virginia voters.
"We're going to see his campaign roll out his positive record of results," said Brian Nick, a spokesman for the Republican National Senatorial Committee. "That's very difficult to run against when you're someone like Webb, a one-trick pony."
Nick and other Republicans said they believe Allen is still the right fit for Virginia, which has a Republican-controlled legislature and has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson carried the state in 1964.
"It's competitive, but we're going to do well," Wadhams said last week.
Schumer has promised to help Webb financially, though he hasn't divulged how or when. But there are good reasons he might.
Senate Democrats are looking for one more competitive race in the hopes that they might take control of the chamber. Democratic challengers in Arizona and Tennessee are also vying for national help, but Schumer said Virginia has three advantages: Allen's recent gaffe, his closeness to Bush and Virginia's demographics.
"You put all that together," Schumer said, "you know, it puts the tumblers in place that you can actually open this lock."