Virginia Sen. George Allen was on Manhattan's West 47th Street early Tuesday morning, peering down the back of a man's shirt.

"You doing Minnie Pearl here?" he asked Ray Adams, spotting a "Size L" tag stuck to his polo shirt. Adams, a retired newspaper distributor from Stuart, Fla., played along with the gag. An admirer of Allen's football coach father, Adams had stopped the senator as he was leaving a TV interview.

"Well, that's good," said Allen, continuing to inspect the tag. "It's made in the U.S.A."

Just about everyone in politics agrees that Allen's strong suit is his ability to connect with people.

"He can talk with anyone," said Randy Frederick, chairman of the South Dakota Republican Party, whose delegation Allen addressed at breakfast Tuesday.

"It's not a put-on. It's extremely genuine, like W," said Richard Kelly, 52, a Greenwich, Conn., investor who has contributed about $100,000 to GOP Senate candidates over the years.

Just about everyone in politics also believes that if Allen has aspirations for 2008, he'll have to prove that he has the gravitas and drive to match his people skills.

"Everyone is talking about Allen's national ambitions, but I don't know when that happens for him unless he really wants to get in the fight," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst with the Cook Political Report. "The next move is up to him."

This is a critical year for the affable former governor, 52, who is fond of invoking the sports adages of his father, the late Redskins coach George Allen. As head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he is responsible for financing and nurturing GOP candidates for the Senate, where his party holds a 51-seat majority.

The position has allowed Allen the chance to travel the country and earn the battle-tested trust of fellow senators as well as establish ties with big-money supporters who could finance a national campaign.

Chairmanship of the committee has traditionally been a springboard to bigger things. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and former majority leader and retired ambassador George Mitchell (D-Maine) are among the alumni. Some observers think a Nov. 2 GOP performance that tops expectations could help boost Allen into the first tier of Senate possibilities for the 2008 Republican presidential ticket, which includes Frist, John McCain (Ariz.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Rick Santorum (Pa).

"The assumption is he's running for president in 2008," said an aide to a top Senate Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Allen and his camp actively discourage such talk. With control of the Senate far from a certainty and a potentially expensive 2006 reelection bid ahead -- if multimillionaire Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) challenges him -- Allen's inner circle maintains strict silence on 2008, focusing on "a game at a time."

"My father always told his players, 'The future is now,' " Allen said. "You pay attention to the task at hand. The future takes care of itself."

So far, the reviews of his committee leadership have been mixed.

A week ago, on NBC's "Meet the Press," he said he expected Republicans to win 54 seats, a prediction regarded by party strategists as brash and probably not sustainable.

Other critics said the party might have fielded stronger challengers against incumbent Democrats in Washington, Wisconsin and North Dakota. Then in Illinois in June, GOP nominee Jack Ryan withdrew from the race in the midst of a very public and messy divorce.

One GOP strategist who works with several senators called Allen's performance "modestly underwhelming" and said his committee has been slow to make decisions, raise money or focus on details.

Democratic candidates outraised Republicans in seven of 10 top Senate races early in the year. And on Allen's watch, the senatorial committee lagged behind its Democratic counterpart in the first two quarters of an election year for the first time.

Allen's defenders point out that the committee still maintains a 2 to 1 cash advantage over the Democratic competition, $20 million to $11 million. They also say his task has been complicated by the ban on "soft money" contributions -- large donations from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals -- and competition with the Bush-Cheney campaign.

On Tuesday, Allen made the rounds of state delegations, drawing kind words from South Dakota and California Republicans. But he was bumped from speaking to the Iowa delegation at the last minute by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose Monday night speech left delegates buzzing about his 2008 prospects.

But Allen is nothing if not a happy warrior. At a reception Sunday on the deck of the decommissioned USS Intrepid, he tossed a football into the crowd, pinched tobacco from the tin and told Republicans to keep all wings of the party "flapping in the same direction."

"Keep smiling," Allen said. "Keep winning."

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), center, with wife Susan, jokes with constituents at a convention reception aboard the USS Intrepid.