Blind Elephants 

In the wake of Sen. George Allen's defeat, the party of conservatives starts the healing process.

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Had the election turned out differently, perhaps the party would have been livelier. As the Virginia Conservative Action PAC ends its annual convention downtown Nov. 11 — planned well before the Democrats took over — all the streamers, lights, giant speakers and television screens muster little enthusiasm.

Mostly there is somber disappointment — and anger.

"I'll always remember November 7, 2006," spews a purse-lipped Rhonda Winfield, a Stuarts Draft mother whose son died in Iraq. "We have been attacked on our own soil. [The Democrats] have declared war on patriotism and the America I believe in.

"November 7 now will forever be a day, for me, when I lost my country," she says.

More specifically, the 200 or so conventioneers seem to be milling about in a hushed state of funereal shock. Especially over losing U.S. Sen. George Allen, the rising Republican star who was considered a legitimate presidential candidate just a few months ago. Allen was the face of the Republican Party in Virginia and one of the most accomplished governors in state history.

It's widely accepted that Allen was one of the state's finest governors if you measure production without the partisanship. In the four years Allen served, from 1994 to 1998, he abolished parole, reformed welfare, passed legislation allowing juveniles to be tried as adults for violent crimes and ushered in the state's first Republican majority in the General Assembly (since Reconstruction).

"They just ran a poor campaign," says Daniel J. Palazzolo, associate professor and chairman of the political science department at the University of Richmond. "They lost control over the macaca thing and just never got it back."

Palazzolo sums it up neatly. After Allen's macaca slur Aug. 11, the national Democratic fundraisers joined the fray. Before macaca, the Democrats had largely written off Virginia. Allen's challenger, the uncharismatic Jim Webb, wasn't considered a "quality challenger," Palazzolo says.

"Webb was dead in the water. There was no inkling he was going to be able to raise any kind of money," he says. "There was no strategy to run in Virginia. … There was no evidence at all that the Democratic National Committee or any of the Democratic committees were going to invest in this race prior to macaca."

The rest is history. Others say the Allen campaign never took Webb seriously, until it was too late. That trademark Allen arrogance was evident within the campaign machinery, says a former Republican operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"I think they took some things for granted," the operative says, pointing to one of the more obvious signs: "They did not have a press secretary for the bulk of this campaign." While he doesn't think macaca did Allen in, the distraction had the effect of "tying the staff in knots," and they never seemed to recover.

Even on election night, Allen's supporters were partying most of the night as Allen held on to a slim lead as the votes rolled in. Virginia already had returned all of its other incumbent Republicans — stemming the Democratic tide in a red state — and the party's top Richmond lieutenants were greasing the crowd for victory.

"We are a party of ideas, that's why we're winning," Attorney General Bob McDonnell told the crowd. "This is a party on the upswing."

Now all bets are off. Virginia's well-regarded status as a "red" state is in question, and pundits are viewing Virginia as a key battleground state in 2008. How quickly the tide turned has left conservatives such as those gathered at the Greater Richmond Convention Center Saturday night perplexed and confused.

There's a numbing state of denial. The first half of the exhibit hall is under fluorescence, white card tables covered with pamphlets and leaflets pimping all manner of conservative propaganda — the "Roe Must Go" booklets sit next to the latest issue of Human Events, with Sen. Hillary Clinton pictured in the left column over the headline, "On Stump, Hillary Shows Left Hand."

Fifty yards away, the second half of the hall is dancing under more than 40 spotlights, flanked by two 10-foot JumboTrons blaring country music while images of soldiers and American flags flash intermittently on the giant screens.

The lights dance brilliantly over the platform, lined with rows of glittering streamers and a giant elephant depicted across a map of the United States in the background. The production worthy of thousands draws only a few hundred, a sea of empty metal chairs with copies of Human Events dangling off the edges.

Onstage, former Gov. James Gilmore, the night's keynote speaker, is, oddly enough, giving the conservatives a pep talk. He talks about homeland security, and getting the party to refocus on cutting taxes and securing our homes from terrorists. He brags about how he carried Northern Virginia when he ran for governor in 1997, "and it was a pleasure doing it." The election, he says, wasn't a repudiation of conservative ideals. The constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, after all, passed with flying colors in Virginia and many other states.

"Maybe there's a lesson to be learned, and an opportunity," Gilmore says. "As conservatives, we need to take back ourselves, too." S

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