By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006
Virginia Sen. George Allen joined several hundred Asian, Hispanic and black supporters in Fairfax County yesterday at a rally designed to show diversity within the Republican Party while recognizing immigrants' growing clout in state elections.
The event came as Allen, a candidate for reelection who has been dogged for weeks by charges of insensitivity to minorities, juggles a rural image that has served him well in past races with the political reality that vote-rich Northern Virginia includes swelling ethnic populations.
"It is invigorating to be here with all sorts of different, diverse backgrounds," Allen told the audience after saying "good morning" and "thank you" in several languages.
Allen was joined by Reps. Frank R. Wolf and Thomas M. Davis III, two Northern Virginia Republicans facing aggressive Democratic challengers in an area where political allegiances could be shifting.
"This is a tough year," Davis told the crowd, which included at least a dozen ethnic Republican groups. "You can read the polls. You can read the press. You can see we are all under fire. We need your help."
A Mason-Dixon poll commissioned by several newspapers across the state and scheduled for release today shows Allen leading Democratic challenger James Webb 46 to 42 percent, according to people familiar with the survey. But Webb leads Allen by 13 points in Northern Virginia, even though the Democrat is relatively unknown and won't air his first television ad until tomorrow. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
Northern Virginia has changed since Allen, a former U.S. representative and governor, last ran for office in 2000.
In Fairfax County, the state's largest jurisdiction, 27 percent of the population is foreign-born. In Loudoun County, whites made up nearly 83 percent of the population in 2000, compared with 74 percent today. The number of Hispanics in Prince William County more than doubled in the past six years, census figures show.
Virginia's ethnic population remains a relatively small portion of the electorate, pollsters say. And unlike African Americans, who tend to vote Democratic, immigrants in Virginia are not closely aligned with either political party, making them critical swing voters in close elections.
Allen is trying to recover from his remark last month to a young man of Indian descent. Allen called the Webb campaign aide "macaca." After nationwide criticism, Allen apologized, saying he didn't realize the word, a genus of monkey, is a slur in some cultures.
Democrats say the remark hurt Allen among non-white voters, including Korean and Indian Americans who often vote Republican in federal races.
"I think it creates a big opening," said Peter Brodnitz, Webb's pollster. "In addition to the real impact, there is a symbolic problem, which is George Allen coming across as closed-minded."
Robert E. Lang, director of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute, said many first- and second-generation Americans in Northern Virginia are well-educated with high incomes, a combination increasingly receptive to Democrats.
"The way to look at Virginia now is it's like South Carolina, with the suburbs in New Jersey and Connecticut laid on top of it," Lang said. "I think it signals a new politics."
For years, Northern Virginia communities outside the Capital Beltway were Republican strongholds, offsetting liberal-leaning neighborhoods closer to the District. But Democrats have been making steady gains. In 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) became the first Democratic presidential candidate in four decades to win Fairfax County. In last year's governor's race, Timothy M. Kaine (D) trounced Republican Jerry W. Kilgore in parts of Northern Virginia.
After Kilgore's loss, the state Republican Party commissioned a study to examine how to prevent similar defeats. Among other findings, the report concluded that the area's changing demographics "are having a dramatic impact on the politics of the region."
Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), who won his race last year by 323 votes, said: "We need to go into ethnic communities, look them in the eye and tell them why our solutions are better."
Yesterday, Allen spoke about his efforts to support minorities. He said he has secured more visas for high-tech workers, backed historically black colleges, promoted a nuclear deal between India and the United States, fought gangs and encouraged more students to study math and science. In Allen's past statewide races, aides said, he has won more black votes than Republicans traditionally receive.
"My friends, I look at each election as a way to unify and inspire," he said at the event, sponsored by the Fairfax County Republican Committee at Edison High School in the county's Alexandria section.
Do Thieu, a Vietnamese American from Annandale who attended the rally, said Allen has always been there for his community. "He has listened, so his actions speak louder than words," he said.
Despite Allen's outreach, some analysts are wondering whether the Republican fully comprehends how the state is changing.
Last week, as he has for years, Allen put on a cowboy hat and saddled up a horse -- this time named Bubba -- to ride in Buena Vista's annual Labor Day parade. Allen, who was born and raised in California, rode down the parade route greeting the Shenandoah Valley crowd by saying, "Howdy! How y'all doing? Good to see y'all."
When the image was broadcast, one longtime Allen supporter said he cringed. "Seeing him with a horse called Bubba wearing cowboy boots, that doesn't resonate with us," said Terone Green, a Republican activist from Richmond who is black.
Green added: "He needs to revamp his whole operation. . . . I have never seen it this bad. I have friends who are just so anti-[Allen] now."
In an interview yesterday, Allen said: "I always ride horses. I wear boots. I am who I am."
Davis said Allen, who ended his day with a speech to 100,000 NASCAR fans at Richmond International Raceway, can't afford to have a rural image in Northern Virginia. Some GOP leaders say Kilgore's southwest Virginia accent cost him votes from independents.
Even so, Virginia remains relatively conservative. In 2004, President Bush defeated Kerry by nine percentage points. Lang said Allen might want to consider losing the cowboy image if he wants to avoid a loss in Northern Virginia. "The sort of Los Angeles identity might serve him better" in the area, said Lang, referring to where Allen grew up.
Allen rebuffed that advice, saying he lost his first campaign for the House of Delegates in 1979 after an adviser made him stop wearing his belt buckle and cowboy boots.
"The best advice I ever received from anyone was 'Just be yourself,' " Allen said.