Allen Seeks to Refocus Campaign With Long Ad

Before his ad aired, George Allen attended an event in Haymarket with former Redskins Roy Jefferson, from left, Mark Moseley and Charley Taylor.
Before his ad aired, George Allen attended an event in Haymarket with former Redskins Roy Jefferson, from left, Mark Moseley and Charley Taylor. (By Kevin Wolf -- Associated Press)
By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

U.S. Sen. George Allen tried to revive his embattled reelection campaign last night with an unusual paid appeal on television asking voters to focus on issues instead of the character questions that have dramatically tightened the race.

The Virginia Republican, appearing for two minutes on one network in each of the five television markets in the state, acknowledged that he has been sidetracked by the questions about his racial and ethnic sensitivity but said he wants to talk about "real issues" with his opponent, Democrat James Webb.

"Virginians expect to hear us address the real issues you care about," said Allen, accompanied by his wife, Susan. "Over the past several weeks, that hasn't been the case. Some of this I brought on myself. But the negative personal attacks and baseless allegations have also pulled us away from what you expect and deserve."

Webb aides had said the candidate would be available to comment on Allen's remarks. But after the ad aired, they said Webb would not dignify it with a response.

"They tried a political trick tonight," said Webb adviser Steve Jarding, who added that his candidate has been talking about issues for months. "They threw a two-minute, watered, tired old ad up on the air and tried to suggest it was news."

Jarding said Allen should meet Webb for a series of debates if he truly wants to talk about issues.

Allen's taped commercial, which aired before the 8 p.m. start of prime time, was an unprecedented step in Virginia politics, analysts said, suggesting his campaign recognizes that he is in the fight of his career against Webb, a former Republican making his first run for public office. A Mason-Dixon poll released Friday for MSNBC and McClatchy newspapers showed the candidates tied.

Allen campaign officials said the ad cost about $50,000. It aired locally on WRC-TV (Channel 4) before "Deal or No Deal." As Allen stood and looked into the camera, viewers saw a backdrop with a photo of his late father, former Washington Redskins coach George Allen.

Shawn T. O'Brien, executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, said: "It is very unusual, but given the challenges he faces right now, he's doing something out of the box. The question is: Can he be convincing enough in two minutes to get people to move past the problems they seem to have identified with him?"

Allen has struggled for weeks to turn attention away from the character allegations, including using an epithet to refer to African Americans, which he denies. He has been turning to veteran advisers for help and blanketing the airwaves with 30-second spots attacking Webb. Allen also announced last night that he will embark on a statewide tour to take his message directly to voters.

The first-term senator last night recounted his efforts as governor to abolish parole, cut taxes, invest in education and improve welfare. Allen then reiterated his opposition to what he called a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. He has supported President Bush on the war from the start.

"I want our troops to come home as soon as possible," Allen said. "And I want them to come in victory -- not defeat. . . . They understand the consequences of failure."

Webb, a former Marine and secretary of the Navy, was an early critic of the war and has called it an "incredible strategic blunder of historic proportions." Allen says the United States should not cut and run from Iraq. Webb thinks the United States should begin moving troops to friendly Arab countries and seek the help of Iraq's neighbors.

In a memo to GOP supporters over the weekend, Allen campaign strategists described last night's address as a "turning point."

Before the ad aired, Jarding dismissed it as an "act of desperation" and a "sham."

"It's the height of cynicism for Allen to say, 'I can do all these months of self-inflicted damage and people are going to be dumb enough to believe all is going well in George Allen land,' " Jarding said. The candidates are scheduled to debate one more time before the Nov. 7 election.

Allen, who has a considerable financial lead over Webb, has been hammering his rival for a week with television and radio ads featuring several female U.S. Naval Academy graduates who said they were harassed in the early 1980s because Webb demeaned women in a 1979 magazine article he wrote titled "Women Can't Fight."

Yesterday, the Webb campaign responded with a 30-second spot featuring two retired female military officers who say they were able to advance because of policies Webb implemented when he was secretary of the Navy. The ad concludes with Webb saying: "It's easy to just take shots at people. It's harder to actually change things. That is what I did as Navy secretary."

Allen adviser Chris LaCivita said Webb's ad fails to address the article in question, in which Webb referred to a Naval Academy dorm as a "horny woman's dream."

"Neither of those two women were subject to words that Jim Webb wrote," LaCivita said. Webb has apologized for the dormitory characterization.

Webb's ad, which his spokesman said will air heavily in television markets across the state, is the strongest sign yet that Democrats are ready to engage Allen in the ad war. Webb has raised about $3 million in the past three months, aides said.

Allen, who has been airing television ads statewide for months, had $6.6 million in the bank in June. But the ads and Allen's message have largely been overshadowed by his response to the controversies.

In August, Allen referred to an Indian American volunteer for Webb as "macaca," considered a slur in some cultures. The gaffe brought new scrutiny of Allen's past, including his youthful admiration for the Confederate flag and the fact that he once kept a noose in his law office.

Even as Allen tried to refocus the campaign, he found himself responding yesterday to the latest scandal on Capitol Hill. He said he would return $2,000 in contributions he received from former congressman Mark Foley, a Florida Republican who resigned last week because of inappropriate instant messages he sent to teenage pages.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company