As U.S. Sen. George Allen travels across Virginia this month on a "listening tour," more than a few people are listening to what Allen says, and how he says it, for clues to his political intentions.
Officially, the Republican senator is riding around in an RV to reconnect with voters in advance of his 2006 reelection campaign. He said the tour, a reprise of the campaign-style trips he took as governor of Virginia in the 1990s, gives him a chance to hear directly from his constituents.
"It's great to get out of Washington, D.C., and get out with real people in the real world," Allen said at a stop at the historic Hanover Tavern on Monday. "It's good to hear people, get ideas and concerns."
But Allen also is being talked about as a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. The intense, two-week trek across every region of the state offers the junior senator a chance to hone messages and themes he could use in a full-fledged presidential campaign.
"You have to pretend that you're really running, as opposed to walking, to reelection," joked Charlie Cook, a national political analyst. "You can't ignore your state, or they can up and embarrass you."
At the tavern, Allen previewed some of his themes: energy policy, the future of democracy in Iraq, a dislike of "activist" judges, tough school standards and a commitment to keeping taxes low.
In a town hall meeting with a friendly audience of about 100, Allen showed off his "aw-shucks" style, speaking for about 15 minutes before opening it up to "y'all's questions."
He got applause by attacking interference from the federal government in the areas of school standards and taxes.
"Death should not be a taxable event," he said, referring to his efforts to eliminate the federal estate tax. "We don't need IRS buzzards swarming around one of our loved one's funerals. There should be no taxation without respiration!"
He criticized President Bush's No Child Left Behind program for forcing Virginia to "dumb down" its curriculum standards and vowed to fight efforts to expand it.
"We've worked too hard to have the federales come in here and foul up what we've done down here," Allen said to hoots and howls from the audience.
In response to audience members' questions, Allen also hinted that illegal immigration will be a focus of his campaigning.
Allen said the federal government must spend more on border security and must improve the system of legal immigration to encourage people to come to America and find work legally. And he said he opposes proposals by Bush and some members of Congress to offer amnesty to illegal immigrants.
"We should not reward illegal behavior," he said, "by granting those here illegally with a track toward citizenship."
Allen's critics in the Democratic Party say he's playing a misleading game with voters by campaigning secretly for president while claiming to be interested in reelection.
"If he's running for president, George Allen should just come clean and say so instead of giving disingenuous answers that insult our intelligence," Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a recent statement.
Allen aides say they are focused on the reelection campaign next year and are expecting a challenge from Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). Warner, whose term ends in January, has not said whether he will run against Allen, but he also has been laying the groundwork for a presidential bid.
Warner is prohibited by the state constitution from running for a second consecutive term as governor.
Allen's Virginia listening tour began last week at a fire station in Front Royal. He has attended a Habitat for Humanity groundbreaking, toured a defense-related company, spoken with chambers of commerce and at a new pharmacy college and attended at least one music festival.
At the tavern, which served briefly as the home to Virginia's first elected governor, Patrick Henry, Allen avoided commenting directly on his plans.
But his biggest applause came as he walked off the stage and someone yelled one word: "2008!"