Va. senator aims to repel Democrats

September 04, 2006|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun reporter

ARLINGTON, Va. -- With Republican control of Congress in jeopardy, a 6-foot-3-inch, tobacco- dipping Virginian in cowboy boots could be all that's standing in the way of a Democratic takeover on Capitol Hill.

Republican Sen. George Allen, an affable conservative whose favorite word is "heck," is a proud defender of one of the seats Democrats would most like to win this fall. To keep it, Allen is doing everything he can to repel a tide that seems to be running the Democrats' way.

Across the nation, "the election is about change versus the status quo," said Stu Rothenberg, who tracks congressional contests for his independent newsletter. "I really think the mood is anti-Republican."

Like some other analysts, he predicts Democrats will capture a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since the 1992 election. In the Senate, he sees Democrats picking up four, and possibly five, seats. For the pivotal sixth seat they would need to gain control, Virginia might offer the best shot, he says, though Arizona is another possibility.

With an unpopular war, high gas prices and the government's failure to cope with Hurricane Katrina still fresh in many voters' minds, Republicans knew that 2006 would be tough. National polls reflect deepening voter disapproval over the performance of the Republican-led Congress and the downward path things seem to be headed on in the country.

President Bush's slumping popularity is a further sign of a classic "sixth-year curse" election - the one in the middle of a president's second term, when the party in power typically suffers losses. Heading into this weekend's traditional campaign kickoff, politicians and analysts agreed that Democrats are well-positioned to make gains.

Still to be decided: just how sweeping those changes might be. If a huge, pro-Democratic wave builds, Senate races would be more likely than House contests to be influenced by a national trend, history has shown.

It was Virginia, six years ago, that did as much as any state to prevent a Democratic takeover of the Senate. Former Governor Allen unseated incumbent Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb and kept Republicans in charge by the slenderest of margins - Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote.

This year, Virginia is a perfect place to measure the overarching themes of the national election: the war in Iraq and the question of whether voters will send a message of disapproval over Bush's leadership. Besides a Senate seat, presidential ambitions are also on the line.

Allen, the 54-year-old son of the late Washington Redskins coach, has spent part of the year pursuing his other campaign, for the White House in 2008. Reflecting the senator's potential appeal to his party's conservative base, Richard Lowry, editor of National Review magazine, wrote last fall that "George Allen has perhaps a better chance of winning the nomination than any other Republican."

Allen's Democratic challenger, James Webb, has a compelling story of his own. A Marine war hero and a writer by trade - his 1978 best-seller, Fields of Fire, is considered one of the best Vietnam novels - Webb served four years in the Reagan administration, including 11 stormy months as Navy secretary.

His early opposition to invading Iraq has driven his candidacy and made the Virginia election a referendum on the war. Anti-war bloggers led the push for Webb, 60, to change parties and launch his first run for office against Allen, whom he had endorsed with considerable fanfare in 2000.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, seeing Webb as the Democrats' best hope to win Virginia, abandoned its usual neutrality and backed the green recruit over a longtime party activist in the primary. The theory: As a former Republican, military man (Allen didn't serve) and lifelong proponent of gun owners' rights, Webb could appeal to the moderate-to-conservative independents and rural voters who often decide elections.

Prominent Washington Democrats began crossing the Potomac to politick with Webb. Leading the charge was the 2004 presidential nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, whose hand Webb had refused to shake for 20 years because of Kerry's lead role with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. (Webb remains a fierce defender of that war.)

Privately, Republican and Democratic politicians say Webb is a decided underdog and trails Allen by about 10 percentage points. At the same time, they agree the race has become more competitive.

"Six months ago, we would have said Virginia was a long shot," New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who heads the Democratic campaign committee, said last week. "Now, we think it's a close contest."

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