Normally, only presidential candidates in the midst of courting Iowa voters are accustomed to being asked about their views on ethanol. But some key votes in the Senate last week have made biofuels an issue for incumbents and candidates across the country, including Virginia Senate hopeful George Allen (R).

The Senate voted Thursday by a wide margin to approve an amendment – authored by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — to eliminate a $6 billion tax credit for refiners who blend ethanol into motor fuel, a key test of Congress’ willingness to target specific tax breaks in the overall effort to reduce the deficit.

Allen, the former senator and governor who is running to succeed retiring Sen. James Webb (D), made his position on the issue clear earlier in the week.

“I have long maintained our biofuel mandates have become unrealistic and drive up the cost of our food and feed,” Allen wrote on his campaign blog. “I commend Senator Coburn’s amendment to end the tax breaks and subsidies for ethanol. Using food and feed for fuel is like busting up your furniture to put in your wood stove to heat your home and wonder why you are sitting on the floor.”

But it turns out Allen hadn’t “long maintained” his view on ethanol. To adapt a phrase from another famous candidate, Allen was against ethanol before he was for it before he was against it.

Early in his one term in the Senate, Allen was an avowed opponent of ethanol. But then he started testing the waters for a possible 2008 presidential bid and, coincidentally or not, his view on the subject evolved.

In 2005, Allen voted in favor of a mandate to increase the use of ethanol in fuels. The switch was widely noted in both the Virginia and Iowa media.

In June of that year, the the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., quoted an Allen spokesman acknowledging that the senator had changed his mind.

“Senator Allen believes that advances in technology have made production of ethanol and other biofuels more efficient, economical and more beneficial for regions of America that produce agricultural crops that can be used for fuel, such as soybeans in Virginia,” the spokesman said.

Allen bragged about his position on ethanol during a visit to Iowa in March 2006. But eight months later, he lost his reelection race to Webb, and his presidential hopes went out the window.

Now that Allen is gunning for his old seat, and trying to win over conservatives in a crowded GOP primary campaign, he says he is opposed to ethanol again. So when did his position change?

Bill Riggs, an Allen campaign spokesman, said the switch happened in 2007, when Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed an energy bill that substantially increased the ethanol mandate and subsidies for producers.

That increase, Riggs said, “drove up the cost of food and feed by siphoning off more than one-third of America’s corn crop for ethanol production. The impact of those price increases on the economy made the biofuel mandates – particularly corn-based ethanol – an unrealistic, impractical and unwise policy.”

Allen’s change of heart has been noticed by his opponents, including Jamie Radtke, the former Virginia Tea Party Patriots head also running for the Republican nomination for Senate.

“I challenge George Allen to apologize for his flip-flop on the ethanol issue and join me in unwavering opposition to ethanol subsidies and mandates in the future,” Radtke wrote on her campaign blog last week.