Allen's Miscues Make for Close Race in Virginia

Sen. George Allen, who could once count on winning re-election — and possibly running for the White House in 2008 — is now in a tight race. A series of gaffes by Allen has turned his race with Democrat Jim Webb from a sure thing into a nail-biter. Virginia voters try to make sense of what has happened to the Allen campaign.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Another week and another round of controversy for the campaign of Senator George Allen. This time it's a former college football teammate who claims Allen regularly used racial slurs and once even stuffed a dead deer head into a black family's mailbox.

Allen has flatly denied the allegations, but a series of missteps by the Virginia Republican has put his re-election in jeopardy.

NPR's Luke Burbank reports.

LUKE BURBANK: This was not how it was supposed to happen. To use an apt football analogy, just a month ago George Allen was in the open field gliding towards the end zone with the ball under his arm and a smile on his face. He was well ahead in his bid for Senate reelection. People were touting him as a 2008 presidential candidate.

Then the unthinkable happened. Allen tripped on his own tongue.

Sen. GEORGE ALLEN (R-Virginia): So welcome. Let's give a welcome to macaca here.

BURBANK: First he used the word macaca to describe an Indian-American man at a campaign event. He apologized for that repeatedly.

Then there were the questions about Allen's Jewish heritage, a heritage he had denied at one point but finally acknowledged.

And now allegations from a number of people who knew the senator years ago that he used racial slurs. True or false, the controversy has made this race closer than anyone expected.

But are the allegations enough to shake the faith of Allen's supporters?

Ms. CAROLE RENMARK(ph) (Allen Supporter): You guys just don't know George Allen.

BURBANK: Well, not Carole Renmark. Yesterday I found the 68-year-old sitting on the porch of a property she's remodeling in Richmond's Churchill neighborhood.

The first thing she did was offer me a drink.

Ms. RENMARK: Have a beer.

BURBANK: The second thing was to tell me about her friend, Senator George Allen, who could never have made the racial slurs alleged this week by people from his past.

Ms. RENMARK: No, I don't think so, because the people who are in Virginia who know George Allen know that this is not a part of his character.

Professor BOB HOLSWORTH (Virginia Commonwealth University): I think voters are generally fairly forgiving about apolitical figure's flaws.

BURBANK: Bob Holsworth is a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. He says that while we, the national media, love a good scandal story, voters often make their choices based on - wait for it - the actual issues, and if they feel they know the candidate they're voting for.

Prof. HOLSWORTH: And in those instances, I think a lot of those voters are going to weigh these judgments higher than whatever scandal happens to be circulating through the media at the time.

BURBANK: So we're just pulling into the parking lot of a Costco outside of Richmond, Virginia. I've already seen one, two, three George Allen bumper stickers. Let's find out what people here have to say.

Mr. HUBERT REGISTER (Allen Supporter): My name is Hubert Register. I'm a retired insurance healthcare industry person and I live in the Richmond, Virginia area.

Allen supports basically the conservative principles that I believe in.

BURBANK: I asked Register, who voted for Allen back in 2000, if the macaca stuff or allegations of using the N-word affected his opinion of Allen. He said no way.

Mr. REGISTER: We're talking about something as far as George Allen is concerned that represents maybe a half a percent, if that much, of the total reason you should look at him for any kind of reason.

BURBANK: Of course, not everyone feels that way.

Ms. KIRSTEN TORONTO (Virginia Resident): It is certainly a big deal to me. And I think it showed real prejudice.

BURBANK: Kirsten Toronto has lived in Virginia for the last 20 years.

Ms. TORONTO: To call someone a macaca and then say that they didn't even know what it meant - I mean, you must think that we're all stupid.

BURBANK: Admittedly, Toronto was planning on voting against George Allen well before the recent controversy, which is how things seem to be shaping up, at least here in Richmond. Allen supporters still support him despite the controversy. His detractors are still, well, detracting.

The really interesting stuff come election day could be happening north of here in the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. Thousands of new people have moved to that part of Virginia, people so new, in fact, they haven't made up their minds yet about George Allen.

Luke Burbank, NPR News. Richmond.

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