U.S. SENATE RACE
Allen's Wife May Help Soften His Rough Edges
Thursday, October 5, 2006
For three weeks, she didn't know. Then Susan Allen's phone buzzed one day last month as she was driving to the bank. Her subdued husband told her he had confirmed the rumor: His mother and grandparents were Jewish.
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) had known the truth since late August, but he had kept his wife in the dark until the day after it came up at a Fairfax debate.
"He said, 'I have to let you know that my mom told me Pop-Pop was Jewish,' " Susan Allen recalled this week. Her husband was referring to his grandfather. She added that she doesn't blame her husband for keeping the matter secret from her.
"How could I be mad at him?" she said. "I could hear the pain in his voice, his worry about his mom. I couldn't be mad at George at all."
Susan Allen played a strong role in her husband's previous campaigns for U.S. Senate and Virginia governor, but they may not have prepared her for the current one. The revelation about the senator's Jewish heritage came amid serious questions about his racial sensitivity, spurred by his use of the word "macaca" and allegations that he had used racial epithets.
Advisers, however, say Susan Allen can help the senator rebut the character questions that have dogged him.
In the current climate, "her voice is something that's been tremendously helpful to the campaign," said Dan Allen, an adviser unrelated to the senator.
This week, as the campaigns of Allen and his Democratic opponent, James Webb, began aggressive outreach to female voters, Susan Allen stepped into a more prominent role. She appeared Monday with her husband in a two-minute television advertisement aired statewide. She recently co-hosted a breakfast for her husband in McLean with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), and similar events are planned with high-profile allies.
Aides say Susan Allen, 46, is a key asset because voters view her as an elegant foil to her rough-around-the-edges husband, with his wad of chaw and omnipresent cowboy boots. She has won praise for raising breast cancer awareness and was a popular first lady when Allen was Virginia governor in the 1990s.
"Senator Allen has had pretty hard press here lately. . . . People look at her and say, 'Gosh, if she's with him, maybe he's not quite that bad,' " said Robert E. Denton Jr., a political communication professor at Virginia Tech who has watched the couple for more than a decade.
In an interview Monday in a coffee shop near the couple's Fairfax County home, Susan Allen vigorously defended her husband against charges of racism, calling him a gentleman "who would never want to denigrate anybody, who hasn't in all his years of service to Virginia." She said that "it's not part of his makeup."
The two started dating in 1984, when he was divorced and a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and she was a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina living in Charlottesville. Their first date was an eight-hour canoe trip on the New River.