In Key Suburbs, Anger, Apathy On Senate Race

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 5, 2006

In Northern Virginia's politically crucial suburbs, the combatants in the tight race for U.S. Senate are fighting the intricate emotions of anger and indifference almost as much as they are fighting each other.

Anger, as in this perspective from Tim Courson, 61, a marketing consultant from Centreville: "We've just got the wrong people in power right now, and I'm hoping the Democrats take both houses."

And indifference, as in this view from Mike W. Schafer, 35, a salesman from Ashburn: "Ugh. I don't like either one of them, to be honest with you."

If the anger -- over Iraq, at President Bush, at Republican leaders in Congress -- pushes enough of Northern Virginia's huge electorate to the polls Tuesday, the region could take credit for sweeping Democrat James Webb into office, political analysts said.

If the indifference prevails -- the doubts about the character of both men, the dismay at their aggressive campaigns -- then more voters will stay home. That is a scenario likely to benefit Sen. George Allen, the Republican incumbent and former governor who is more popular outside Northern Virginia.

Voters in Centreville and Ashburn live in swing precincts, places that aren't reliably Republican or Democratic, but have usually voted for the winner in statewide elections.

Whether picking up their dry cleaning, rushing to retrieve children from school or sitting still for a quick coffee at Starbucks, about two dozen voters in Fairfax and Loudoun counties voiced strong opinions on a variety of topics. Disgust was the strongest one -- but that didn't always make their choice clear.

In this unscientific snapshot of voters' feelings over three days last week, most voters interviewed said they would support Webb -- for change, for his opposition to the war in Iraq, for being more moderate than Allen on such questions as abortion and same-sex marriage.

There were exceptions, including Maryellen Coale, 49, a nurse from Ashburn Farm and a Republican who will vote again for Allen -- for his family values and his social conservatism, she said.

Many others said they were put off in equal measures by both candidates, primarily because of what they view as nasty campaign tactics. They said the attacks are often irrelevant, such as accusations that Allen used racial slurs as a young man (which he denies), or that Webb has questionable attitudes toward women because of explicit sexual content in his novels. No matter whom they choose, they will have to hold their noses, many said -- and maybe they won't vote at all.

"It's a tossup," said Orlando Gonzalez, 41, a defense contractor on his way out of a Giant supermarket in Ashburn on a recent weekday evening. "It's the worse of two evils."

Yet even as they professed repugnance at the campaigns, voters acknowledged being influenced by what they hear. They said questions of character -- raised primarily by the campaigns -- will weigh heavily as they make their final decision. Although most dismissed Allen's alleged use of epithets ("I don't see that as important at all. Who cares?" said Haydee P. Lauderman, 73, of Ashburn), more were troubled by an incident this year, when Allen, at a campaign stop, called an Indian American campaign worker for Webb "macaca."

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