By Robert Barnes
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
After a 24-hour Iraq-a-thon, Sen. George Allen was clearly hoping that yesterday's debate in front of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce would offer up a different topic of conversation. So what does he get? A question about whether his mother taught him a racial slur and whether he's tried to cover up that his grandfather might have been a Jew.
It's been that kind of a month for the Republican once hailed as Virginia's sunniest politician. August's "listening tour" of the commonwealth, meant to display his great connection to the state he's served as governor and senator as well as voters' appreciation of that service, might as well have ground to a halt after his words to a dark-skinned volunteer for his opponent James Webb hit YouTube. Even conservative talk radio now defines an ill-fated blunder by a politician as a "macaca moment."
According to polls, his once double-digit lead over Webb has dwindled to the margin of error, and Virginians no longer think it a good idea that he run for president in 2008. Last summer, a Mason-Dixon poll said the commonwealth's voters would go for the notion of a President Allen 47 to 41 percent; the poll earlier this month showed it 52 to 39 the other way.
After Allen was grilled Sunday morning by NBC's Tim Russert on his stay-the-course approach to the war in Iraq, Webb and Allen were back at it yesterday before the chamber in a big ballroom in Tysons Corner. The questioning yesterday touched on other issues -- economic disparity, stem cell research, transportation -- but even Allen seemed to acknowledge that, in the end, it returned to the war.
"My friends, this is not a one-issue campaign," Allen pleaded.
Webb agreed, only to a point. He said voters want "to see strong, effective leadership on many issues, not one issue -- although that issue tends to dominate a lot of our minds every day, as well it should."
Despite Allen's protests, and his contention that he and Webb are not that different on what should happen next in Iraq, Virginia might be the most stark test in the country about whether the unpopularity of the war and the Bush administration could lead to an incumbent losing his job.
Allen is one of the president's most loyal friends in the Senate, although he no longer jokes, when Webb charges that he's supported President Bush 97 percent of the time, that he wishes he could persuade the president to do the right thing all the time. The Republican he has most mentioned recently is the state's more moderate senior senator, John Warner, whom Allen introduced to the crowd yesterday as his "teammate."
Still, Allen has remained steadfast. "Staying the course is meaning that we don't tuck tail and run, that we don't retreat, that we don't surrender," Allen said Sunday on "Meet the Press." "This is a central battlefront in the war on terror, and it's not just the president or the vice president or me saying that. That's what al-Qaeda says."
Webb said: "If we had the right people in the Senate, there would have been more questions asked and a better policy in place in order to defeat international terrorism. . . . We didn't go into Iraq because of terrorism; we have terrorists in Iraq because we went in there."
If it has been Democratic strategy to try to keep Senate races across the country focused on national issues, the Republican plan has been to localize the issues and to personalize the contest.
To that end, Webb has found himself this week answering questions -- and doing his own apologizing -- about the sharp-tongued piece decrying women in combat generally and at the Naval Academy specifically that he wrote for Washingtonian magazine 27 years ago. The Allen campaign engineered a news conference last week at which several women who were former midshipmen said the article had been used to humiliate them and led to harassment.
"I apologize to anyone who was offended by the tone of the article," said Webb, who again was forced to express regret about referring to the academy dorm as a "horny woman's dream."
When Allen said that "women today are still dismayed" by the article, Webb replied: "I guess this is my macaca payback? Keep trying, George."
Of course, no Webb-Allen debate is complete without more macaca, and yesterday's came from WUSA-TV anchor Peggy Fox, who pointed out that one of the places the word is an insult is in Tunisia, where Allen's French-Tunisian mother was born.
"I hope you're not trying to bring my mother into this," Allen warned. He said again that he made up the word on the spot and never heard it from his mother. He said his mother taught him tolerance above all, especially because her father had been incarcerated by the Nazis.
Which led Fox to reference a Jewish Forward article that said Allen's grandfather might have been a Jew, and when did the family stop acknowledging that? Which led to lusty booing from the crowd and outrage from Allen. "I'd like to ask you, why is that relevant?"
In the end, Allen's smile returned when he said, for the record, that his mother is "French-Italian with a little bit of Spanish blood" and that, as far as he knows, she was raised a Christian.
It is a race with a little bit of everything, including two of the most different candidates ever thrown together. The taciturn Webb rarely asks for votes and yesterday said in his closing statement both that he would give "every ounce of my energy" to working on the nation's problems over the next six years and that "when I go to my grave, whether I was a United States senator or not is not going to be high on my agenda."
Not so Allen, who never fails to include his wife in the bargain. "I thank you all for allowing Susan and me to serve you, and I hope and I pray and I ask you most humbly that you all will continue to allow us to work for you and our shared values and our shared vision for Virginia's future."