A Contest of Character
If Virginia voters want to pick their next U.S. senator based on issues, Democratic challenger James Webb and Republican incumbent George Allen give them plenty to work with. They disagree on taxes, the war in Iraq, support for the Bush administration, the deficit, how the government should fight terrorism, and a constitutional amendment aimed at same-sex marriage.
If Allen had ever heard of them, they might also disagree about what Webb thinks is the vitally important subject of the Senkaku Islands.
But if the character of the candidate is the deciding factor, Virginians are entering murkier territory in the four weeks before they decide one of the nation's most competitive and high-stakes Senate contests. Will they choose Webb, a man they're still getting to know, or Allen, a man they're having trouble recognizing?
Some Democrats privately worry that Webb -- war hero, military expert, noted novelist, a former Republican who broke with his party over the war in Iraq -- is still an attractive résumé in search of a campaign persona. His appearances on stage with Allen have been described by party professionals as feisty but chilly. And, strapped for cash, he was not able to introduce himself to voters on television before Allen put him on the defensive, especially with women, key voters for any Democratic candidate.
As for Allen, his campaign for reelection is unlike the "insurgencies" he ran as an underdog to become governor in 1993 and turn out Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) in 2000. "I don't recognize this George Allen," said Virginia Tech political scientist Robert Denton.
The gregarious, self-described "rebel" has not looked comfortable defending his lead, which polls show may be down to almost nothing. "Oh, the campaign got off on other things that were not issues, that were not ideas," Allen said with a sigh when Monday night's debate moderator asked what had happened to his lead. "Some of it I brought on myself; some of it was just smears in the campaign."
Allen was caught flat-footed by Webb's Senkaku debate question, payback for when Allen had stumped him in a previous debate.
Allen, who had counted on the conservative base to be key to his presidential ambitions, is now talking about different mentors.
On Monday night, he neglected to mention his record of loyal support to President Bush. But he intoned the endorsement of Virginia's senior Republican, Sen. John W. Warner, who more regularly bucks his party's leadership, at least three times.
How Virginians decide between Allen and Webb is likely to be complicated, influenced by national politics, great demographic changes in the commonwealth and a souring mood about the direction of the country. And although both sides profess a longing to talk about the "issues," they also have made it clear in their advertising and campaign strategies that character will be just as important.
So it is that the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee began a nearly $1 million TV blitz yesterday to revive the moment when Allen turned on a dark-skinned volunteer for the Webb campaign and uttered the campaign-altering word "macaca." (Democratic consultants in Virginia and Washington must have smacked their foreheads when Webb declined, during Monday night's debate, an invitation to address Allen's alleged insult, saying it had been "discussed ad nauseam.")
Allen has had as difficult a time as any Senate incumbent this year. The campaign was thrown off track by the macaca incident, reacted awkwardly to reports of his unacknowledged Jewish heritage and was roiled by allegations that Allen, while a student at the University of Virginia in the early to mid-1970s, routinely used an insulting epithet for blacks.