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.Unscripted Moments
Allen's second stop of the day was to a volunteer fire and rescue unit just outside Berryville. After that he hurried into his campaign's red Ford Explorer and was driven back to Winchester, so that he could stand at the entrance to the Handley High School football stadium, the site of an afternoon game.
He shed his blazer and necktie. He gripped a football, in case incoming spectators wanted him to throw passes their way. Not many people stopped. It was a reminder of just how seldom prominent officeholders intrigue the public. In most cases, Simon Cowell would do better.
A stocky man walked by, trailed by a little boy carrying a miniature ball with a Redskins logo on it.
"That's a good Redskins football," Allen said to the kid.
"I don't like the Redskins," said the boy. That was the problem with a public event like a football game -- a non-campaign event. Nothing was controlled. Supporters did not necessarily predominate. There might be a weird moment. On the other hand, a candidate had a chance to win over undecideds.
Here came another kid, this one lithe and big. "Hey, young man, let me throw you a pass," Allen said.
The kid looked at his father, who nodded.
"Go long, go deep," Allen said.
The kid ran about 15 yards and turned. Allen threw a decent spiral and the boy caught it. His father shook Allen's hand. "I'd appreciate your vote," the candidate said to Thomas Grant Jr., who smiled and wished Allen luck, saying to others, as he walked away, that while he hadn't decided, he thought he might vote for Allen, having enjoyed meeting him.
Buoyed, Allen stuck out his hand toward a thin, mustachioed man with a jaunty black leather cap. "I'm George Allen," he said. "Nice to meet you. Would appreciate your vote."
The man warmly shook Allen's hand and smiled. "Very nice to meet you, too," he said.
Allen began giving him his pitch. "I want you to keep more of your money in your wallet," he said. "And I'd be grateful if you took a look at my stance on illegal immigration. Another really big issue is -- " The smiling man interrupted Allen, amiably. "Can I ask you something? I'm just curious. When will we ever get back to discussing issues? I'm not concerned about the history of a man way back before. And I know it's not just you doing it. It's just that I'd just like to hear more about what all of you are going to do with all the problems, Iraq and everything else. I'm just asking."
Allen nodded. "Yes, and that's right. And I talk about those very important things every day. I really do hope you'll take a look at my positions on taxes and illegal immigration because -- "
"But there is a lot more of the other thing on television -- about the opponents, I mean," said the man, whose name was Larry Banks and who works as a pharmacy technician in Winchester. Banks, 59, had not made up his mind about Allen and Webb, genuinely on the fence about the race, he said, and just as genuinely engaged in their campaigns. "I'd like to hear more about the issues when I turn on the television and it's you on. And, like I said, don't misunderstand, it's not just you, but . . . I guess I'm tired of hearing the slurs from everybody."
Allen nodded. "Well, please take a look at my stance on all those things. And I'd appreciate your vote."
Up at the entrance, Allen's aides were telling him it was time to go; they were already running behind schedule. "Let's go, let's go," Allen responded and, grabbing the football, threw a pass to an aide headed for the red Explorer. "Touchdown."Pedal to the Metal
One of the worst-kept secrets of campaign managers is that they overschedule candidates, are chronically late for everything and try to compensate by having aides drive at some suborbital speed to get to the next event.
Allen headed toward a barbecue at a supporter's house in the town of Sperryville, which was about 58 miles away from Handley High School. Mapquest said it would take an hour and 29 minutes to get there, but Mapquest doesn't count on people driving at 80 to 85 mph.
Allen slept some of the way. The Explorer rocketed south along Route 522, over roadkill in its many forms, around a piece of sheet metal at one point, and once swerving slightly to get out of the way of an erratic driver. Much of the way the SUV was being buffeted by stiff gusts of 30 to 40 mph.
When the Explorer reached the house, Allen ran out and immediately started shaking hands. A bluegrass band was playing on a deck. Supporters wore name tags and Allen stickers. A woman named Connie Hair ran up to Allen to say she had already voted absentee for him. Allen thanked her, hugged his hosts, posed for a few pictures and headed back toward the Explorer, gone. He had been there for 12 minutes.Fact and Fiction
He was off on another long drive south again, this time to Glen Allen, to pick up an endorsement from the National Rifle Association, whose officials waited for him in the parking lot of Green Top Sporting Goods, where a sign carried a huge word in big block letters: GUNS.
Allen was a half-hour late, stepping out of the vehicle even as it was coasting to a stop. He ran toward a podium. About 100 supporters clapped loudly. Cars slowed on the main drag of U.S. 1, right out in front of the store, with motorists craning their necks to see what the fuss was all about. There came the sound of a crash, somebody getting rear-ended. Eventually the candidate took questions, virtually all of which dealt with Allen's charge that novels written by Jim Webb had demeaned women.
When asked whether novelists who had ever written a sex scene, from John Steinbeck to John Updike, were unworthy of pursuing political office, Allen joked, "Are they on the ballot?"
This got a good laugh from his supporters -- proof of the wisdom of staging news conferences while surrounded by boosters. "My opponent runs ads and talks about himself being a writer," he said. "This is part of his record. . . . He can explain those [book] passages. Not just me but others find those passages to be demeaning to women. He can explain those passages."
If Webb's books were grist for fair debate, a reporter asked, should the book by Allen's sister Jennifer be scrutinized, particularly passages that claimed he had bullied her, dragging her by the hair and once dangling her over Niagara Falls?
The boosters fell quiet. Allen stayed composed. "That book is a novel and fiction," he said, "and I love my sister, and she had me escort her down the aisle when she got married. . . . She said it was a novelization of certain events, a lot of it from her perspective [as] . . . a young girl from her view of growing up in a fairly rough and rowdy family, but a lot of those are exaggerations."
He said he wanted to touch on a couple of other "big issues," noting his support of the Virginia Marriage Protection Amendment.
"Amen," a supporter called out.
But Allen got back on point: "My record is an open book, and he can explain passages that he wrote in his books, because he's proud of being an author."
Is this about character? a reporter pressed.
"He needs to explain his passages," Allen said resolutely.
"Thank you," an aide interrupted, ending things.Focused on the Game
Allen made an appearance at a Ducks Unlimited dinner, and then his day ended in Richmond, at the season's opening home game of the Renegades, a minor-league hockey team. The team's president, Allan B. Harvie Jr., had invited him to drop the ceremonial first puck on this evening and, afterward he stayed to watch the game.
At the end of the first period, he was playing with a souvenir hockey stick under the stands, near the locker room, when a reporter who had grilled him at the NRA event appeared.
Allen slipped the stick around the reporter's left ankle and pretended to jerk. "Tripping," he said, but he was smiling, in good humor. His wife, Susan, had come to the game, and so had one of his best friends, and Allen was looking serene, playing a little game, shooting a puck down a hallway and jogging after it, then tapping it further down the hallway, like a kid dribbling a basketball. No one interfered with his game.
"Let George shoot," his wife said.
"I used to play on a pond when I was a boy," Allen recalled, "second to eighth grade, when we were living out near Chicago, when my father was coaching there."
Someone wanted to ask him a last question about Webb, but he was too engrossed in that puck, asking that a friend open a door so that he could attempt to shoot the puck through it. He drew back for a wrist shot -- and the puck flew through the opening, Allen exultant, his wife saying, "You keep on winning."
"Thanks, coach," he said to her.
An aide whispered in his ear, wanting something. "Not now -- can talk about that later," he said softly, and then the aide repeated the question.
"Not now," Allen said.
People began shuffling into the red Explorer. "It's starting all over again tomorrow anyway," Allen said, climbing into the Explorer, at rest.