A star of red-state Virginia has a fight on his hands

Could George Allen, once a slam-dunk Senate pick, drop the ball next week?

A few months ago, when the warm breezes of summer were wafting across Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, George Allen could justly expect only one result from Election 2006 – he would be reelected easily to the US Senate.

Senator Allen's supporters were already quietly looking beyond November. There were whispers in Republican circles about Allen running for the White House in 2008.

Yet as autumn drew near, there was an abrupt change in the political climate. The winds from the Blue Ridge grew cold. Very cold.

Jim Webb, a decorated, twice-wounded combat marine with family roots in the hamlets and hollows of Virginia's mountains, suddenly threatened Allen's comfortable lead.

Starting in February with no money and few supporters, Mr. Webb had built strength. In June, he won the Democratic Senate primary against an opponent who outspent him 3-to-1. As summer turned to fall, Webb picked up momentum. Allen was now fighting for his survival.

Political polls have seesawed. The latest Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times survey found Webb slightly ahead, 47 percent to 44 percent.

This remains Allen's race to lose, however. Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, explains that in federal elections in Virginia, "Republicans almost always win the close races."

Republicans hope so. Otherwise, this election could become part of a major shift in Washington. A Democratic victory here, combined with other states where Republicans are in deep trouble, could tip the balance in the Senate to the Democrats, and give President Bush a rough finish to his second term.

GOP notables, including the president, have rushed to Virginia to help the senator's embattled cause. Mr. Bush raised $500,000 for Allen in a single day Oct. 19.

Democratic worthies, including former President Bill Clinton, smell an upset. Mr. Clinton, on the same day Bush was here, raised a similar $500,000 for the Webb campaign.

It's that close.

So why is Allen – one of only six men in Virginia history to be elected both governor and US senator – in such trouble? After all, he's well known and widely liked across the state. Though a native Californian, he has close ties here. He graduated with history and law degrees from the University of Virginia, and was a quarterback on Virginia's football team.

True to his college, founded by Thomas Jefferson, Allen preaches his adherence to "Jeffersonian principles," one of which is the centrality of the family to America's social and political order, notes Peter Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation professor at the university.

To understand Allen's problems, however, one needs to look no further than the war in Iraq, as well as to an obscure word with Portuguese origins – "macaca."

First, Iraq. The war might not be such a problem for Allen, except for Webb. Allen has backed the president in the war from the outset. And Webb has opposed it. As security problems grow worse in Iraq, it is "advantage Webb."

What makes Webb so effective on Iraq in a conservative, pro-defense state like Virginia is his extensive military record along with a gravitas that drives home both the human and economic costs of the conflict.

A 1968 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Webb later served as a Marine Corps company commander in the Vietnam War. He came away with the Navy Cross, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. He knows first- hand the bitter price of war in blood, treasure, and heartbreak.

Some Democratic consultants privately lament that Webb is not what one of them calls "a natural politician" – something Webb readily concedes. On the campaign trail, Webb is a stern, straight-backed man of about 6 feet who seldom smiles and carries himself more like a drill sergeant than a glad-handing politician.

Webb comes from a military background that he traces back to the Scots-Irish who fought, and often defeated, the armies of English kings. He is clearly proud of his ethnic heritage, which he explored in his 2004 book, "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America."

Since leaving the military because of his war wounds, Webb has become a millionaire writer of six novels, as well as his non-fiction volume on the Scots-Irish. But he is never far mentally from his warrior days.

The Webb family's commitment to the military continues with his son, James Robert Webb, now in Iraq with the Marines. The candidate brushes aside questions about his son's tour, but wears a pair of marine boots on the campaign trail.

Since leaving the military, Webb has been a party switcher. Originally a Democrat, he quit after President Jimmy Carter, also a Democrat, pardoned draft dodgers after the Vietnam War.

When Ronald Reagan became president, Webb joined his Republican administration, first as an assistant secretary of defense, then as secretary of the Navy. But his party hopping continued.

Webb told reporters recently in Arlington that before the Iraq war began, he warned that it could become a quagmire. When Bush ignored such advice and plunged into Iraq, Webb dumped the GOP and returned to the Democrats.

Webb was only marginally responsible for another of Allen's problems. It was a split-second mistake by the senator, captured on video. While at a public meeting, Allen spotted a young Webb campaign volunteer of Indian descent who had been recording Allen's speeches at various locations. The senator knew the man worked for Webb, and speaking to him, referred to him as "macaca," and welcomed him "to America."

Allen claims he just made up the word "macaca." But it turns out that in some countries, the term is considered an insult and refers to a genus of European monkey – although it doesn't appear in most dictionaries. (This reporter finally found it in a 12-1/2-pound, unabridged Webster's.) Allen apologized for any offense, but critics charged him with uttering a racial slur. Damage control pulled Allen away from the message of his campaign for days.

Webb has interpersonal problems of his own, however. Most of those problems are with women, some of whom have criticized his writing about women in the military.

A prime target has been a 1979 article, "Women Can't Fight," in the Washingtonian magazine. There are claims that the article prompted extreme hostility toward female cadets at the Naval Academy.

Webb has apologized, but some former cadets still fume about it.

The candidate recently called together reporters and several retired women military officers to counter the criticism. Nine former women officers endorsed Webb, though like the senior officers they once were, some of them gently dressed down the former marine, who appeared to wince at least once.

Retired Army Col. Barbara Lee reread his articles before joining "Veterans for Webb." She called the article "extremely troubling." But after talking with Webb, she told reporters that he was "a young man then," but is now "a seasoned leader" who has "moved along in his thinking."

As is fitting for a Senate race in Virginia – the home of George Washington, James Monroe, and James Madison – both Senate candidates look into history for inspiration and guidance. Both share a favorite president, Ronald Reagan. Allen is a Reagan Republican, Webb a Reagan Democrat.

And each has a favorite president from America's first century. For Allen, it is Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. For Webb, it is Andrew Jackson. Webb notes that "Old Hickory," as he was known, was the first populist president, and fought for the little man – something Webb wants to do in the Senate. And besides, Jackson was Scots-Irish.

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