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.
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."
About education, Allen has used both his gubernatorial and his senatorial offices to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into public institutions. But he is also on record favoring measures to let parents use tax-free savings accounts to send their children to any participating school-public, private, or religious. He backs charter schools. He wears his lowly 27 percent rating by the National Education Association as a badge of honor.
On abortion, Allen is nuanced-and reluctant to talk about details. But he's got credibility of sorts when he says simply: "Look at my record." The pro-abortion group NARAL gives his voting record a 0 percent rating.
But what has Allen really energized these days is energy itself. It's been a problem for three or four decades, he said both in his Senate speech (where he repeatedly addressed "my colleagues," even though not a single one of them was there in the chamber to hear him) and to anyone else who will listen. The problem has now taken on new urgency, he insists, because we're at war. We've got to explore-in Alaska, in the Gulf, everywhere. We've got to innovate. We've got to educate. We've got to get serious about energy now not just because our comfort depends on it; we've got to be serious because our lives literally depend on it. That's the Allen message.
In all this, there's an eerie reflection of someone else who came to Washington not so long ago wearing cowboy boots and catching people off guard with the seriousness of his mission. And in that parallel lie both opportunity and peril for George F. Allen. It takes a careful operator to skim off the benefits of walking close to George Bush without also suffering the liabilities.
The opportunity is that if he can (1) prove himself as a senator-statesman over the next six weeks, (2) silence his skeptics and critics just as George Bush did in 2004, and (3) win reelection to a second term if only by the barest of margins, Allen will stand on a sturdy platform to launch a bid to become Bush's successor as president in 2008.
The peril, of course, is that if he loses his senatorial reelection bid on Nov. 7, it's hard to picture him with a political future of any kind-let alone a presidential run.
Understandably, neither Allen nor members of his staff want to talk now about a presidential bid. "His whole focus is on being a good senator, and on the Senate race," one of his campaign staffers told me as we drove to slightly more rural Winchester, 90 miles west of Washington, for a political rally just a few hours after the senator's energy speech at the Capitol.
Right now, George Allen is pulling out the stops in his campaign against James Webb, his Democratic opponent in the current race. As well as Allen knows the state of Virginia, and as much of a newcomer as Webb is, the race really shouldn't be close.
Indeed, Webb's skinny awareness of the state was broadcast for all to see during a July debate between the two candidates. "Can you elaborate," Allen asked Webb, "on the proper use of Craney Island?"-referring to a mega-proposal in Congress to develop a major commercial terminal, with thousands of jobs, in Hampton Roads.
When an obviously embarrassed Webb (a man who had served as Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration) had to admit he didn't even know what Craney Island was all about, Allen jabbed pointedly: "Craney Island's in Virginia." That kind of imbalance in background had helped give Allen a 16-point edge over Webb in the polls as late as this past July.
Yet if Allen's sharp questioning gave him such an early margin, it was his sharp tongue also that a few days later cost him much of that very advantage. At a political event in the far southwest part of the state, Allen took note of the presence of a dark-skinned young man (of American Indian descent, it turned out) from his opponent's campaign staff who had for several days been attending all of Allen's gatherings-with video camera in hand to make a record of everything that was being said.
The young guest got more than he bargained for when Allen tauntingly and inexplicably referred to him as a "macaca"-a term some interpreted as a racial slur. Whether the term has any such connotations now is almost beside the point; the issue was immediately so blown out of proportion by the media that Allen felt compelled to apologize. And the fact of the apology then appeared to many to confirm a slipup that within a few days had cost Allen most of his statistical lead in the race.
Allen actually had a pretty credible defense for what he said. No one-including The Washington Post, which featured the story repeatedly for several weeks-ever demonstrated that "macaca" really has such murky racial connotations in any language. But in northern Italy, where Allen's mother had close family connections, "macaca" does seem to mean "clown" or "buffoon." Allen says now that's what he was trying to communicate.
Kay Coles James, a well-known African-American who was a member of Allen's cabinet when he was governor of Virginia, believes him totally. She told WORLD she's puzzled about where Allen came up with the term-but insists that to charge the senator with any sort of racism is to ignore his whole record and who he is personally. And Benjamin J. Lambert III, a senior black Democratic member of the Virginia Senate, agrees, and last week crossed party lines to give Allen his public endorsement.
Some Virginia Republicans who have worked with Allen in earlier campaigns remember his demonstrating "a slightly mean streak" from time to time, especially when he was stressed, and they think that's what happened in the "macaca" putdown. But all were careful to distinguish the event from anything with racial connotations.
Allen faces some angry voters all apart from the "macaca" episode. Virginia may have moved in recent years toward a GOP inclination after generations of lining up solidly behind Democrats-but its voters are still up for grabs. Democrats have won the governorship twice since Allen left office in 1998. And David McKinney, reference librarian at Shenandoah University where Allen spoke briefly at the rally just outside Winchester, is outspoken. Wearing a Webb sticker on his blazer, McKinney told WORLD Allen must be defeated because "he just agrees too damn much with George W. Bush." It was a sobering picture of what Republicans face nationwide this fall.
But maybe the bigger danger for Allen is that bloc of voters who have lost their enthusiasm. They don't blame Allen; indeed, they don't think he's getting a fair deal. But neither has he energized them for the fray. "The media circus after the 'macaca' event," said Dan Carrell, an attorney from Richmond and a former Republican state party official, "is exactly why so many of us have tuned out of politics."
Carrell told WORLD that the fact that "an episode like that can fill the media for days on end while they ignore so many issues of substance-and that the whole race might in the end hinge on that-well, that's pretty disheartening."
Disheartened voters, both in Virginia and throughout the country, may well be the bloc to watch on Nov. 7. The challenge for George Allen and his colleagues, one more time, is to see if they can give their backers something worth fighting for.