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Political survivor

"Political survivor" Continued...

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

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.

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