A horde of Virginians gathered under a canopy of pine trees in rural Sussex County on Wednesday for heaping plates of fish, political gossip and a microcosm of next year’s Republican U.S. Senate primary.

As the front-runner in the GOP nominating contest to succeed retiring Sen. James Webb (D), former senator George Allen swamped his opponents at the annual Shad Planking festival, offering more of everything: signs, stickers, hats, volunteers and — crucially, given the hot, sticky weather — cold beer.

Jamie Radtke, Allen’s best-known foe and former head of the Virginia Federation of Tea Party Patriots, went to the Wakefield Ruritan Club southeast of Richmond with a smaller financial war chest but armed with an argument — that Allen isn’t conservative enough to deserve the Republican nomination — that she hopes will be enough to fuel an upset.

“People are looking for an alternative. They really are,” Radtke said.

Radtke’s booth at the gathering featured a large sign contrasting her views with Allen’s record in the Senate — including votes to raise the debt ceiling and for the No Child Left Behind law.

Radtke’s booth also offered bags of pork rinds with a sign saying “Here is the only pork you’ll get from Jamie.”

Surrounded by outspoken supporters, Allen seemed unperturbed and said he saw the Shad Planking as “the kickoff to the general election,” in which the Republican winner will probably face former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D).

“I’ll be happy to talk about my record,” Allen said in between autographing hats and posing for pictures next to his campaign booth. “Many of the things I was fighting for as governor . . . and senator are more important than ever.”

The festival is viewed in some Virginia quarters as a show of organizational and financial strength in a race that will attract considerable national attention: The commonwealth is one of a handful of competitive states that could decide who takes control of the U.S. Senate.

On the campaign trail, Allen said, people ask him most often about jobs, gas prices and federal spending — in that order — and don’t spend much time talking about his Senate voting record.

Radtke, 37, said she had “a fire in the belly” and compared herself to two conservative GOP freshman senators, Mike Lee (Utah) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).

“People are so sick of career politicians,” she said.

Some disagreed, including young voters Radtke would like to target.

Lee Mitchell, 25, who works in marketing in Richmond, said he would vote for Allen in the GOP primary because “he has the experience no one else has.”

Mitchell thinks that background will help Allen navigate the budget debate more effectively than a novice.

“In Virginia, I think we tend to go with people who have experience,” he said.

Joe Parker, a retired small business owner and registered independent from Charles City, Va., said he had not made up his mind on the Senate race and was attending the Shad Planking — for at least the 15th time — to meet the candidates.

Parker said he had voted for Allen in past races, but now, “I’m not sure Allen is as conservative as I am.”

“When I voted for him in the past, the deficit was not as big an issue as it is now,” Parker said.

But he’s not sure what to make of Radtke, either.

“I thought Sarah Palin might be a good presidential candidate, too,” Parker said, before he learned more about her and decided she wasn’t.

As a leader of the state’s tea party movement, Radtke had support at several local groups’ booths Wednesday.

John Phelps, chairman of the New Kent Tea Party, said that although his group wasn’t backing a candidate yet, he would vote for Radtke “because she’s not a politician” and Allen is.

“I was greatly disappointed in him in the Senate when the Bush administration was spending money like there’s no tomorrow,” Phelps said. “He’s part of the problem.”

The Shad Planking, which has been held every April at the Wakefield Ruritan Club for more than 60 years, is a bipartisan event, and a few Virginia Democrats — including Sen. Mark R. Warner and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott — were there. Kaine was not, and he raised some eyebrows by not having a campaign booth at the festival.

David McCormick, a Hampton Roads lawyer also running for the Republican nomination, didn’t bring beer — just bottled water, some literature and bean-bag games for kids.

“I decided to bring the McCormick flair,” he said, noting that next year’s Shad Planking — at the height of primary season — would be more important than this one.

Bishop Earl Jackson is also running for the GOP nomination, and Scott said he is considering a run for the Democratic nod. TV production company owner Timothy E. Donner has also filed papers to run for the Republican nomination.

But the assumption that Allen will face Kaine in the general election is widespread enough that Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) joked about it in his speech to attendees.

“That colossal matchup between Jamie Radtke and Bobby Scott,” McDonnell said. “We just cannot wait.”