The Two-Minute Drill

It's all in the game: Sen. George Allen tosses a football at a barbecue hosted by a supporter in Sperryville, one of several campaign stops last Saturday.
It's all in the game: Sen. George Allen tosses a football at a barbecue hosted by a supporter in Sperryville, one of several campaign stops last Saturday. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)
By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 1, 2006

He would have been forgiven for looking stressed. His fat summer lead of 16 percentage points had disappeared. But George Allen seemed just fine early Saturday morning. If tense campaigns demand that imperiled candidates, like card players, learn the art of the bluff, Allen has mastered the technique.

For the first of seven frenetic campaign events on this day, he had come to Winchester, which is solid Allen turf, a good hour away from his electoral troubles in increasingly Democratic Northern Virginia. About 200 people had come to a small hotel to wear Allen stickers, eat breakfast and wait for his exhortation. The chairman of Virginia's Republican Party, Kate Obenshain Griffin, launched into her introduction by promising the crowd that "if you've never heard George Allen speak, you'll leave here with a passion you've never had before."

Standing off to the side, Allen softly groaned at the effusive praise, as if a tad embarrassed. "Gosh, geez, ahhhhhh," he muttered, his voice all but inaudible. He towered over several seated breakfasters who, never having met him before, shyly, furtively glanced his way. A few Allen aides in the room occasionally rubbed their eyes, stifled yawns. It had been a long week, and Saturday would be even more grueling, with two long rides of more than an hour awaiting them. Presidents have travel perks: Air Force One, helicopters, bulletproof limos that ride along cleared-out interstates. George Allen, like any other senator in a reelection campaign, cruises like a road-weary salesman.

There is nothing more instructive about the unglamorous nature of the midterm election process than to ride for a day in chase of the candidate's vehicle, which on this day would be racing south through Virginia, trying to put some space between the candidate and an increasingly formidable foe.

His name called by Griffin, Allen strode to the front of the room, beaming. "Ladies and gentlemen . . . patriots all," he boomed. "Good mornin'. Are you ready to win?"

"Yesssss!" the crowd howled back. Allen grinned. His ability to stir his political base has inspired comparisons to Ronald Reagan, part of the reason why he was long regarded by many as the chief rival to John McCain for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. But ever since a series of missteps that led some to see him as racially or ethnically insensitive, Allen's poll numbers have been sliding.

If Allen's Democratic rival, James Webb, has been the beneficiary, analysts generally agree that this has less to do with his strengths than with Republicans' woes generally and Allen's in particular. In a recent poll of Republican and Democratic insiders conducted by the National Journal, the sampled political pros said Allen had run the worst of all Senate campaigns in the country.

But on this Saturday, the incumbent sounded like a man 20 points up. He talked happily about how his trademark cowboy boots were ready for the race's final sprint. "I only expected a third of this crowd to be out here on a rainy day," he said, rocketing through his stump speech.

In conclusion, the former college quarterback and son of the famous Washington Redskins coach exhorted his troops: "This is the final two-drill . . . Let's get out to victory . . . The boots are ready!"

Out in the audience, Kenny Noe stood and applauded. A political independent, he has been a longtime supporter of Allen. He is a computer technician from nearby Stephens City and, at 40, savvy about the way the world works. He knows politics is a rough game, but even so he has been disappointed by the tenor of campaigns from both parties this year.

"If I had the opportunity, I'd tell Senator Allen that the campaign and the negative campaign ads are turning me off to the whole process," Noe said. "But a [campaign event] is not the place where you can comfortably talk to someone about something like that."

True. An American political rally has its own rituals. Sunny dispositions are mandatory. Discussion of a candidate's problems is verboten. So Kenny Noe and his wife, Traci, lined up to have their picture taken -- on Traci's cellphone -- with Allen, who was doing what nearly all candidates do in these situations: making happy small talk. Riffing about a good hamburger. The Virginia Tech football game the other night. Allen smiled and positioned himself for the photo. He smoothed his blue blazer and adjusted his red tie. "Let's get your bride in close," Allen said to Kenny. The line moved on. Another supporter shyly approached. Allen shook his hand and smiled at the woman alongside him. "Is this your bride?" he asked brightly.

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