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GOP's Allen Faces Tight Senate Race in Virginia

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GOP's Allen Faces Tight Senate Race in Virginia

GOP's Allen Faces Tight Senate Race in Virginia

GOP's Allen Faces Tight Senate Race in Virginia

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Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia was expected to cruise to a re-election victory this year, ahead of a possible run for the White House in 2008. Then last month, the senator called a volunteer for Democrat James Webb "macaca" during a rally before a mostly white crowd. Now the race has tightened.

LYNN NEARY, host:

The race for the Senate in Virginia was supposed to be a coronation for incumbent Republican George Allen. Allen, who has eyes on the White House, was expected to cruise the victory over Democrat James Webb, a former secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration. That was before two incidents entangled the incumbent in unexpected controversy over race and religious heritage.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: It's become known as the macaca incidents, a word Allen used in referring to an Indian-American campaign worker for Webb who was videotaping Allen at a rally in rural Virginia last month.

Senator GEORGE ALLEN (Republican, Virginia): So welcome. Let's give a welcome to macaca here.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. ALLEN: Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.

NAYLOR: Allen insisted the word was made up on the spot. He's had to endure not only questions about whether the term was a racial slur - he insisted it wasn't - but questions about his mother who's from Tunisia, where that word has been used to refer to dark-skinned people.

In any event, Allen has found himself apologizing for it ever since, as he did in a debate with Webb this week.

Sen. ALLEN: I have said and I'll say it once again, I made a mistake. It was a thoughtless moment. I have apologized for it, as well I should. I've never heard that word before from my mother or from anyone else.

NAYLOR: Allen's macaca gaff is believed responsible for tightening the Virginia Senate race. A Mason-Dixon poll taken this month shows Allen with a four-point lead over Webb, down from a 12-point advantage in July. And just when Allen might have thought the furor might be fading he's had to deal with a new wrinkle. At that same debate this week, before some 600 members of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, a local TV reporter asked Allen about his religious roots.

Unidentified Woman #1: Could you please tell us whether your forbearers include Jews, and if so, at which point Jewish identity might have ended?

(Soundbite of crowd booing)

Sen. ALLEN: You know what, I'm glad you all have that - I'm glad you have that reaction. You know what our first freedom in our country was? Freedom of religion…

NAYLOR: The question stemmed from a story in The Jewish Daily Forward newspaper which reported it was likely that Allen's mother was Jewish by birth. Allen had already been riled by references to his mother in the macaca incident, and on this occasion Allen took umbrage.

Sen. ALLEN: …and one of those values is freedom of religion and not making aspersions about people…

Unidentified Man #1: Let's move on.

Sen. ALLEN: …because of their religious beliefs.

NAYLOR: But that statement stirred a fresh controversy. Why should asking Allen about his Jewish roots constitute making aspersions? Liberal bloggers and others demanded to know whether Allen was ashamed of his ancestry. That forced Allen to release a statement saying that he “embraces and takes great pride in every aspect of his diverse heritage.”

Allen is a former governor of Virginia known for his trademark cowboy boots and chewing tobacco. In an interview outside the Senate chamber this week, Allen said he got angry at the debate because he felt the reporter was bringing his mother into the campaign. But he said he sat down with his mother after the original article in The Jewish Forward came out last month.

Sen. ALLEN: And I said, what is this? And while I'm not sure if that's accurate as far as all the Portuguese and Portugal stuff and all, she confirmed it to me.

NAYLOR: It was, Allen says, the first time he knew he had Jewish roots.

Sen. ALLEN: Clearly, this is something new, recently found out. But regardless, I don't think that - I still don't think it matters. But to the extent that anybody thinks (unintelligible) to talk to - well, I'm not going to get in this. So, folks, it is best for the people of Virginia, I think for America, that we don't have religious litmus tests for people.

NAYLOR: Webb has also faced questions about insensitivity because of a 1979 article he wrote that argued against admitting women to the U.S. Naval Academy. At the time Webb said they should not be allowed to lead men into combat. He said his article was written in a time of great and emotional debate and that he is now fully comfortable with the role of women in the military.

Media interest in the sideshow aspects of the campaign has obscured the substantive differences between the two candidates on the issues. Allen opposes federally financed embryonic stem cell research. Webb supports it. Webb supports raising the minimum wage, which Allen has opposed. And there's the war in Iraq. In Monday's debate, Allen was critical of something Webb had said in a debate the day before.

Sen. ALLEN: My opponent, Mr. Webb, said yesterday that in the forming the future of Iraq that we actually ought to invite in Iran and Syria, two state sponsors of terror. That doesn't make much sense to me.

NAYLOR: Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran who was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and in fact voted for Allen six years ago, has been a staunch opponent of the war in Iraq from the start.

Mr. JAMES WEBB (Senatorial candidate, Virginia): Sen. Allen would like to believe that this is the only issue that divides us in this campaign and he would also like to believe that we're not very divided on this issue.

We've been divided from day one on it, whether we should have gone in, which I believe was a strategic error. On the issue of talking to other nations, first of all, I think Senator Allen ought to go back and read a comment he made just last year when they talked about the new president of Iran, and he basically said we should be talking to even our enemies.

NAYLOR: Webb speaks of Iraq with the knowledge that his son, a Marine, is now serving there. He campaigns wearing a pair of combat boots his son gave him.

Unidentified Woman #2: ... next senator. I can't wait.

Unidentified Man #2: Jim, (unintelligible) you and your son...

NAYLOR: At a rally in Alexandria, Virginia, earlier this week, Webb appeared alongside a rising Democratic star - Senator Barack Obama.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I've had enough of folks who act tough on TV I want somebody who really is tough...

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. OBAMA: ...when it comes to our foreign policy and implementing our 9/11 Commission reforms.

NAYLOR: When it came his turn to speak, Webb, decidedly less animated, referred to what is now the biggest obstacle his campaign faces: cash.

Mr. WEBB: I've spent a great deal of time, as has been reported in the press, having to raise funds so that we can continue to pursue our campaign. And when I got into this campaign I didn't really think that's the way I was going to be spending most of my time.

NAYLOR: There is indeed a considerable difference between the two candidates bankrolls. As of the last reporting period, Webb had just over $400,000 in the bank compared to over $6.5 million in Allen's account. Webb's best hope is that with the race tightening and Allen's gaffes, more money will flow into Webb's campaign.

The Democratic Party hopes so too, as it needs at least one long shot to come in if it's to gain the six seats it needs for a Senate majority.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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