Virginia Senate Race Too Close to Call

The hotly contested U.S. Senate race in Virginia between Sen. George Allen and Democratic challenger James Webb looks likely to turn on the votes of independents in northern Virginia.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And we'll see how this news affects this fall's election. One of the key Senate races - U.S. Senate races - is in New Jersey. Another is in Virginia, where Republican Senator George Allen remains in a bitter fight for his political career. He's seemed certain to win re-election until he suffered a series of self-inflicted wounds. His opponent is the author Jim Webb, a former Navy secretary in the Reagan administration who is now representing the Democrats.

Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: Republicans used to praise Virginia's junior senator as a rocked-ribbed conservative with lots of personal charm. According to one admiring profile, if you put Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in a blender, you'd get George Allen.

Senator GEORGE ALLEN (Republican, Virginia): Thank you. (Unintelligible)

LIASSON: Allen was once planning to use his political talents in a bid for the White House in 2008. Now he's just hoping they get him another term in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. ALLEN: Hey, Freddy. How do you say coach in Spanish?

FREDDY: (Speaking Spanish)

Sen. ALLEN: What is it?

LIASSON: On Tuesday, Allen was in Falls Church accepting endorsements from Hispanic Republicans and ripping into Jim Webb on the subject of tax cuts.

Sen. ALLEN: Now, my opponent has a different point of view. I'm proud to stand with all of y'all here. He was standing with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and all those folks...

CROWD: Boo.

Sen. ALLEN: ...and if they had their way, all this tax relief would expire for families, for small business owners...

LIASSON: On Monday, Jim Webb was in Arlington, also receiving support from Hispanic organizations.

Mr. JIM WEBB (Democratic Senatorial Candidate, Virginia): Hey, how are you?

LIASSON: Webb's not as comfortable with the backslapping rituals of retail politics. Instead of playing to the cameras, he seemed anxious to get them and the pack of journalists out of his face.

Mr. WEBB: Can we declare a truce for a while here so we can have some lunch?

LIASSON: Webb doesn't have a polished stump speech and he's reluctant to talk about himself, so most voters don't know he's a decorated Vietnam veteran, or that his son is a Marine in Iraq. But he is eager to talk about an issue that really animates him: economic fairness.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. WEBB: A lot of people believe that the main reason I decided to run for office was because of the war in Iraq. And certainly the war in Iraq was a principle reason. But the true motivation for my doing this is the breakdown that has come in our society along economic lines. We now have a situation in this country where the stock market is at an all-time high. And at the same time, wages and salaries for our working people are literally at an all-time low.

LIASSON: On the stump, Allen and Webb talk about tax cuts or economic inequality. On the air, the campaign is all about character. The national Democratic Party, sensing an opportunity for a Senate pick-up, has been pouring money into the race with ads like this one.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

ANNOUNCER: George Allen, scandals, slurs, and insults. Now after Allen's dark side is exposed...

LIASSON: But the national Republican Party considers Virginia part of its firewall to maintain control of the Senate, and they're also pouring money into the state. Along with the Allen campaign, Republicans have spent millions of dollars hammering at Webb for an article he wrote in 1979 called Women Can't Fight.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Woman #1: Mr. Webb's viewpoints absolutely showed disrespect towards women.

Unidentified Woman #2: To imply that we were there for sexual purposes...

LIASSON: Partly because of the Allen campaign's relentless focus on Webb's writings, the two candidates are now tied among women. For the first time in years, there is no gender gap favoring the Democrat. For that reason, the battleground group in this race is women, in particular married women. The battleground region is here in the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C.

At the Dulles Town Center Mall in Loudon County, Virginia, Camille Battaglia is shopping with her young son. She says she is married with three kids, and...

Ms. CAMILLE BATTAGLIA (Virginia Resident): I'm going to vote Republican.

LIASSON: Allen's macaca comments mean nothing to her.

Ms. BATTAGLIA: Yeah. I think that's all blown out of proportion. I don't think he did that deliberately, so I don't buy it. I think he's done a lot of positive things for Virginia over the years.

LIASSON: But since Allen last ran in 2000, the population of Loudon County has grown by 50 percent. As it's grown more diverse and more affluent, Loudon County has also grown a little less Republican, and Webb is counting on voters here like Cathy Kazanski(ph).

Ms. CATHY KAZANSKI (Virginia Resident): I'm an independent, lately been leaning more Democrat.

LIASSON: Here's what Kazanski knows about Webb.

Ms. KAZANSKI: Well, he used to be a Republican. He, you know, I know he made some opinions that, you know, 20 years ago that I probably don't agree with, but I'm giving him the benefit of a doubt, also because I just really don't like George Allen and where he's going.

LIASSON: Like many of the women here, Brooks Berger(ph) says she hates the fact that all she hears are negative ads.

Ms. BROOKS BERGER (Virginia Resident): I'm hearing a lot of bad things about Webb. And then I'm hearing other things about George Allen that are making me question him too.

LIASSON: But sorting through all those bad things is the only way she can make up her mind.

Ms. BERGER: I'm hearing Naval Academy women say about Webb - that just is discouraging. And this macaca thing really got me going. It made me question his - sort of his integrity.

LIASSON: Sounds like you're really up for grabs.

Ms. BERGER: I am.

LIASSON: Virginia is the only state of the old Confederacy where a Republican senator is in trouble this year; and it's because of Allen's own missteps and the changing nature of Virginia's electorate, more than anything the Webb campaign has done or said.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

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