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Political survivor

Politics | George Allen had a rocky road to the Senate; now a suddenly difficult reelection race could stand in the way of an expected presidential bid

Issue: "Street theater," Sept. 30, 2006

WASHINGTON, D.C. - When George F. Allen ambled off the floor of the U.S. Senate a couple of Friday mornings ago, just after delivering a vigorous 38-minute speech on energy policy, there was hardly a hint of pressure or tension.

Oh, maybe the toothpick he popped into his mouth suggested he had some issues in the back of his mind as he took the elevator down to the Senate subway. He joked with a staffer about having slightly stumbled over just one line in the speech, and you could infer he was looking for a little affirmation. "No, it was very good," the staffer responded obligingly as they stood waiting for the subway train that shuttles between the Capitol and the Hart Senate office building.

Nor did the junior senator from Virginia seem at all uptight half an hour later when he took on journalists from throughout his state on a conference phone call from his office. Leaning far back in his swivel chair, he swung his trademark cowboy boots up on the corner of his desk and spent the next 35 minutes-virtually noteless-walking reporters through the silliness of boutique gasoline blends, the advantages of soybeans over corn as a source for biofuels, and the seriousness of a threat to the United States from what he calls a "radical Islam caliphate that could stretch from Indonesia to Spain." Not everyone, even in sophisticated Washington, knows what a "caliphate" is; George Allen does.

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For two reasons, Allen had a right to be a bit on edge. For besides filling the normal role of a senator that day, which for someone representing the diverse state of Virginia is a huge and demanding challenge, Allen is this fall running for reelection for a second term in that office. And on that particular Friday, he was still smarting from a mid-campaign gaffe that had prompted even some of his supporters to mutter: "How could that have happened?"

Just being senator is hard enough-even for someone, like Allen, who has spent most of his adult life in public service. You'd think with all the practice he's had, it should be easy by this time. But every time Allen's gotten the hang of the office he's in, it's snatched away from him.

He was a delegate to Virginia's legislature when the local U.S. congressman unexpectedly resigned because of illness; Allen won the special election that followed. But only two years later, reapportionment took that seat away from him, chopping off his career in the House. So in 1993, he ran for governor of Virginia, starting far behind but winning with 58 percent of the vote, and proving to be one of the state's most popular chief executives. But governors in Virginia are one-term-limited-and by 1998, Allen was back in private life.

Virginia's two Senate seats were held then by Republican John Warner and Democrat Charles Robb, Lyndon Johnson's son-in-law. In 2000, Allen decided to challenge Robb, and he won-making Robb the only incumbent Democrat to lose a Senate seat that year.

Not even Allen's friends would deny that along his career path, he's picked up breaks because of his famous father, George H. Allen-the legendary NFL coach who four years ago was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But the younger Allen seems determined to show he can do it on his own. After all that bumping around from office to office, Allen takes his Senate task seriously, diving into issues with uncommon focus.

If there's a hint of the playboy in this man (his first marriage ended in 1983 after just four years, when he was only 31), and if there's a sense that he was born to privilege, Allen is more than capable of showing you that he has personally and seriously engaged matters like immigration, Iraq and Iran, abortion, stem-cell research, and activist judges.

On these issues and more, Allen will show you quickly he doesn't need to rely on his aides for talking points. He's thought them through on his own. His comments are measured, not hurried. They surprise you by sounding more like the product of personal processing than like plastic soundbites.

Concerning the war in Iraq: "Calls to establish specific timetables for withdrawing our troops are shortsighted. They would have us get out without regard to the real conditions on the ground. The consequences would be terrible for the security of the American people at home. Our commitment is not open-ended. It still has in view the movement of the Iraqis toward self-government and self-defense."

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