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After 2 Decades in Ascent, A Stunning Breakdown

By Michael D. Shear and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 10, 2006; A01

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."

Now, Rozell said, "no one talks seriously about George Allen being presidential timber."

Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) issued a statement yesterday calling Allen "the most effective Governor of the modern Virginia era." Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) praised him for efforts "to abolish parole, reform welfare, promote higher academic standards in our public schools; and bring new business, industry and jobs to Virginia."

But Richmond lobbyist Charlie Davis said Allen "lost his way" when he went to the Senate and failed to grasp the state's changing demographics and moderating politics, especially in population-rich Northern Virginia.

"Once he got inside the Beltway, he got absorbed and detached from the state," Davis said. "When he was governor and he was around the state capital, he was with real people every day who were not reluctant to share their feelings. You get to D.C., for some reason he did not realize the landscape here was changing dramatically."

Longtime Virginia Republicans say Allen also turned away from the insiders who had helped him succeed, bringing in a new team, led by campaign manager Dick Wadhams, who had little experience in Virginia.

It wasn't until September, after the scandals erupted, that Allen brought back his trusted Virginia hands.

G. Paul Nardo, Allen's chief speechwriter when he was governor, said he was sad to see his former boss lose: "I don't think you've heard the last of him."

But Democrats -- and even some of Allen's closest allies -- said yesterday that his defeat should serve as a political red flag that Virginia is no longer the conservative, Republican red state.

"The wrath of Northern Virginia can make Virginia purple," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

At Allen's conciliatory concession speech, several supporters said it was unfortunate that voters had been unable to see more of the same humility from him during the hard-fought campaign.

"I know that on a personal level that was his tone, but how to translate that in the midst of a campaign, we have to learn that," said Brett Berlin, 56, of Alexandria.

Others said they expected, and hoped, that Allen would run again, for Senate in 2008 or governor in 2009. "By being as gracious as he was, he preserves those options," said Howard Lee, 57, of Fairfax County.

Allen also was joined during his concession speech by his daughter, Brooke, who clutched at her side the football Allen often has with him. The senator took the football from his daughter and tossed it to a supporter, who threw it back.

"Final toss. Done," said Allen after making the catch. "See y'all."

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