By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008; B01
RICHMOND -- As Virginia voters prepare to go to the polls Tuesday to help choose the Republican nominee for president, state and national party leaders are left wondering: What if former senator George Allen had never uttered the word "macaca"?
After years of preparing for a 2008 presidential run, including trips to Iowa and New Hampshire and formation of a national network of donors, Allen's use of the word on Aug. 11, 2006, changed the landscape of the GOP nominating contest.
"The most important word uttered in the Republican presidential primary has not been terrorism or taxes, not faith or family, " GOP strategist Dan Schnur wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times. "Rather it was macaca."
Allen, who could not be reached, used the word at a campaign stop to point out a Democratic activist who is an Indian American. The incident aired on the Internet and on television and was covered extensively by newspapers, contributing to Allen's stunning loss in 2006 to James Webb (D).
Allen's subsequent decision not to run for president left GOP activists searching for their next leader. For the first time in a generation, there is no presidential candidate who inspires all elements -- economic, social and national security conservatives -- of the modern Republican Party.
Would Allen have been that candidate?
"A lot of us saw him as the 1,000-pound gorilla. He would have had so much clout and credibility within the party around the country," said Chuck Smith, chairman of the Virginia Beach Republican Party.
Other Republicans say Allen would have been far from a shoo-in for the nomination despite his potential advantages. As the race heated up last summer, President Bush's approval ratings were plunging to record lows among GOP voters frustrated over his immigration policies and his management of the war in Iraq.
With his signature cowboy boys and "aw shucks" personality, Allen could have been defined as the candidate most like Bush, some Republican strategists say.
"To some, that would have been his only drawback," said Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who heads Americans for Tax Reform. "People say he does kind of look and dress like Bush."
But Norquist and others believe Allen could have been the front-runner today, filling a void in the current field to be what GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio called "the consensus conservative candidate."
Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va) said: "One of the problems with each of the Republican presidential candidates this year is each of them doesn't connect with all segments of the party. Allen would have been able to do that."
Although Sen. John McCain of Arizona shares Allen's desire to achieve "victory in Iraq," as Allen was fond of saying, some conservatives are angry about McCain's stance on immigration reform.
Before Rudolph W. Giuliani dropped out of the race, the former New York mayor shared Allen's zeal to fight Muslim extremism. But the two diverge considerably on social issues.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is campaigning on many of the same issues Allen would have touted but lacks Allen's track record of embracing conservative views.
Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, has many of Allen's personality traits, most notably being witty and personable. But Allen probably would not have supported higher taxes, as Huckabee did when he was governor.
Another candidate, former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, was supposed to live up to Allen's potential. Allen endorsed him and was co-chairman of his campaign. But even though they agree on most issues, Thompson could not match Allen's optimism, enthusiasm or speaking skills. He dropped out of the race last month.
Some fear the GOP nominating contest could leave lasting scars on the party.
Morton C. Blackwell, Virginia's Republican National Committee member and a Romney supporter, said: "I have said for many months that unless Fred Thompson or Mitt Romney is our nominee, that any of the other significant candidates would have a very difficult time in putting together the entire conservative majority coalition. Each of the others make major segments of that coalition very nervous if not downright angry."
Blackwell said Allen would have "been right on all the issues," but others say GOP voters might have moderated this year.
Former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger, who supports McCain, said Allen would have struggled to reach out to independents, who helped McCain gain momentum last month after victories in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.
"I just don't think [Allen] would have had that appeal," Eagleburger said.
Republican strategist Alex Vogel said that, were it not for the "macaca" remark, Allen would have had a major advantage on the campaign trail. "The fact is, George Allen comes across as a regular guy, and he had an amazing ability to connect with the people," Vogel said.
In his successful races in 1993 for the Virginia governor's office and 2000 for the U.S. Senate seat, Allen generated intense passion from GOP activists across Virginia who worked tirelessly on his campaigns.
During his early forays in the presidential campaign, Allen appeared close to winning support from the business and religious conservative wings of the GOP. But Allen's preparations to run for president might have been what ultimately cost him his Senate seat, some Virginia Republicans say.
According to friends, Allen does not dwell on whether he might now have been a few months away from the GOP presidential nomination.
Former Virginia attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R) noted that if Allen wanted to be in the game, he would be plotting his political comeback. Instead, Allen announced last month that he will not run for governor in 2009, even though many Republicans believe he would be a heavy favorite.
There are also questions about whether Allen could have withstood the scrutiny of a presidential campaign, given the allegations that swirled around him in the closing months of his Senate campaign.
"No one will know," said John H. Hager, a former Bush administration official and Virginia lieutenant governor who now chairs the state Republican Party. "When you get into the presidential game, it's a big game, and the stakes are so much higher, it's hard to tell what would have happened."