MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Six weeks before election day, Republican Senator George Allen is on the defensive again. He's in a tight race against former Navy secretary, James Webb. Three members of the Virginia Senator's college football team said he frequently used racial epithets to describe blacks when he was at the University of Virginia. Senator Allen has strongly denied the charges, and other former classmates say he never used racial slurs.
This summer, Allen apologized after calling an Indian-American campaign worker a macaca, a word viewed as offensive among Southeast Asians. And more recently, Allen had to explain why he appeared to be offended when asked about his mother's Jewish lineage. Jeff Shapiro is a political reporter and columnist for the Richmond Times Dispatch. He says Virginia was just emerging from the Jim Crow era when Allen allegedly used the racially offensive language.
Mr. JEFF SHAPIRO (Richmond Times Dispatch): At the time this took place, in the ‘70s, Virginia was very much in transition. Now in the Senator's defense of course, we have not really been able to pin down who is telling the truth here. But of course for the Senator, this is an unfortunate turn of events because why would a candidate, particularly one interested in the presidency, want to be discussing whether he is racially insensitive?
NORRIS: Senator Allen thus far has responded to these charges. Are we seeing it come up again and again on the campaign trail? Is he planning to release ads taking this on?
Mr. SHAPIRO: This morning, Mr. Webb had a conference call with reporters to discuss veterans' affairs. He was pressed on this latest controversy and would not answer those questions. It's quite clear that the feeling within the Webb campaign is that this is a story that pretty much speaks for itself, and it's best to let the senator deal with it.
NORRIS: But questions about the senator's views on race have come up time and time again in the past, on his vote on the MLK, the Martin Luther King Day holiday, on the proclamation honoring the Confederate flag. In the past, how has he repeatedly handled these kind of allegations?
Mr. SHAPIRO: This question of Senator Allen's racial sensitivity or insensitivity, depending on one's perspective, date to the earliest days of his career. As a Californian who came to Virginia, I think one could argue that Senator Allen believed that affecting kind of this rural, bubba, good old boy, aw shucks persona was one way to ingratiate himself to what initially was his rural constituency. And as he moved to the state wide scene, he was able to somehow use it to represent himself as a bit of a revolutionary, challenging a long, extended run by the Democrats.
NORRIS: Is he walking a fine line in this campaign, trying to appeal to the old-dominion voters who still perhaps put confederate decals on their trucks or their BMWs and at the same time trying to appeal to new Virginians in the northern suburbs?
Mr. SHAPIRO: Well, I must say I'm hard pressed to say that I've seen a stars and bars decal on a BMW, but your choice of automobiles I think is important because Virginia is a suburban state, and while there's a lot of this state that's still very much countryside, its politics is dominated by the suburbs.
There is clearly a fine line that he must walk. These episodes are driving up the senator's negatives, and so it's making it very tough for him to really advance themes other than I'm a friendly guy, I'm your next door neighbor, you know me, to which a lot of people are saying now, do we really?
NORRIS: Jeff Shapiro, thanks so much for talking to us.
Mr. SHAPIRO: Thank you.
NORRIS: Jeff Shapiro is a political reporter and columnist for the Richmond Times Dispatch.
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