After 2 Decades in Ascent, A Stunning Breakdown

Sen. George Allen, with wife Susan and daughter Brooke. Allen began the race with a 16-point lead and had been considered a shoo-in for reelection.
Sen. George Allen, with wife Susan and daughter Brooke. Allen began the race with a 16-point lead and had been considered a shoo-in for reelection. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Michael D. Shear and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 10, 2006

The George Allen who conceded defeat yesterday in Virginia's nasty U.S. Senate campaign was the one who revitalized Virginia's Republican Party and the one who was considered a front-runner for the White House, with his folksy, football-and-cowboy charm.

Relaxed and smiling, ever gracious, he thanked his campaign staff, talked about his two-decade record of being tough on criminals and reforming schools and finished like the veteran campaigner who won two statewide elections: "Teammates, fellow patriots, stay strong and stand strong for freedom!"

But it was an Allen who was rarely seen on the campaign trail this year.

Instead, the relentlessly cheery politician who was an up-and-comer in the national GOP spent most of the fall during his campaign against challenger James Webb in a defensive crouch, trying to deflect accusations that, down deep, he is a bully or a racist.

Allen began the campaign with a 16-point lead in the polls. As a wildly popular governor and then senator, he was considered a shoo-in for reelection. As Allen visited Iowa and New Hampshire and prepared for a 2008 presidential bid, the conventional wisdom in August was that a stunning victory in the Senate race would position him as the darling of the party.

Then came the now-legendary "macaca moment." He called a Webb volunteer of Indian descent "macaca" and welcomed him to "America and the real world of Virginia." That was followed by his awkward handling of revelations about his Jewish heritage and accusations that he used racial epithets during and after college. He also got caught up in a tide of anti-GOP sentiment that cost Republicans control of the House and the Senate.

"The kind of meltdown that occurred here is a quintessential example about how 24 hours can be a lifetime in politics," said Robert D. Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Allen's colleague Sen. John W. Warner (R) is the state party's senior statesman. But it is Allen who has been the face of a new generation of Virginia Republican activists. In his 1993 inaugural address, after overcoming a 34-point deficit to become the state's 67th governor, Allen called the activists his "insurgents."

"George Allen, I think, singularly, turned around the fortunes of the Republican Party in Virginia," said George Mason University political science professor Mark J. Rozell. "He unabashedly reached out to the religious conservatives. Yet, he still had that nice smile, that charisma, that sunny disposition that made him appeal to moderate and independent voters."

Allen rode that appeal first into the Virginia governor's mansion and then into the nation's most exclusive club, the Senate. From there, he hoped it might be a short hop to the White House.

By last December, others thought so, too. In an article in the conservative National Review, editor Richard Lowry wrote that Allen "combines the people skills of Bill Clinton, with the convictions of a Ronald Reagan, with the non-threatening persona of George W. Bush circa 2000, before he became a hate-figure for the left."

Lowry concluded that Allen was a leading contender for the 2008 GOP nomination because he blends "amiability with competitive ruthlessness in a way that makes him, at age 53, one of the nation's top politicians."

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