Curious George 

Macacagate isn't just a "Daily Show" skit anymore. It just might cost Sen. George Allen the election.

click to enlarge news36_allen_100.jpg

To review: Allen was at a campaign event in Southwest Virginia in early August when he referred to S.R. Sidarth, a staffer for Allen's opponent, Democrat James Webb, as "macaca," variously defined as a kind of monkey, a racial slur and a harmless play on the word "Mohawk," the hairstyle Sidarth was sporting that day. The Republican Allen also welcomed the Fairfax native "to America and the real world of Virginia."

National news coverage and comedic speculation ensued, followed two weeks later by an apology from the senator.

And now there is a second act.

A Wall Street Journal/Zogby poll released last week has Allen falling more than a percentage point behind Webb, still within the margin of error. The poll reports 47.9 percent for Webb and 46.6 for Allen. It's a strong showing for Webb, who's new to electoral politics and, in fact, new to the Democratic Party.

But the bigger question is how this could affect Allen's future — not just in the Senate race but in his potential presidential bid in '08, which until recently hasn't really been in doubt.

"Nobody expected that George Allen would get a close challenge from Webb," UR's Palazzolo says — much less fall a point behind.

That's not a water-cooler moment. That's a hurricane.

"I wouldn't say this is the end" for Allen, Palazzolo says. "He's in a storm and I think he needs to find, for his own political sake, a safe haven."

Polls merely capture a moment in time, Palazzolo points out. After all, Rasmussen Reports and SurveyUSA, two other well-known pollsters, reported slightly different results around the same time, giving Allen five- and three-point leads over Webb, respectively. And Allen still holds a gigantic edge in fund raising.

"What we've seen is that this race has dramatically tightened as a direct reaction to this fumble and the continued fumbling," says Fritz Wenzel, communications director for Zogby International, which puts Webb ahead. "They finally got around to apologizing, but by that time the damage had been done."

According to Wenzel, each candidate is polling as expected within his own political party; it's among independents where Allen is in trouble, trailing Webb 37 percent to 51 percent.

"That's very surprising for a popular incumbent," Wenzel says, explaining that aside from macaca, other factors are coming into play.

"In Virginia, the population is growing so quickly, especially in Northern Virginia, that the incumbent influence is diluted," Wenzel says. "The other factor is a good portion of the people moving in are moderate to liberal."

Looking at the results from the 2004 presidential race, when Virginia voting patterns began creeping left — not to mention the governor's race that put Democrat Tim Kaine in office — it seems that the state isn't as red as previously suspected.

But Republican strongholds everywhere are weakening, experts say. Zogby looked at Virginia and 17 other states with Senate races this year. Of the eight states with Republican incumbents, only Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas held a significant lead. The others were all within the margin of error or behind their Democratic challengers.

Still, it's surprising to see Allen in so much trouble. As chairman for the Republican's Senate fund-raising committee, Allen collected enough cash to widen the GOP's lead in that chamber to 11 seats in 2004. He was a well-liked governor and is the son of a Redskins coach with plenty of political equity in Virginia.

Now he's running against an energized Democratic Party and a better-funded opponent. The Democrats need to convert six Republican Senate seats to win back a majority. "I would say that on the Democratic radar Webb is the seventh most likely," says Ron Rapoport, chairman of the College of William and Mary's government department. He expects Webb will get a big funding boost post-macaca.

Although Allen's war chest is impressive, the plan was not to spend it all in one place. The Senate race was supposed to be a slam-dunk, good publicity and a fund-raising opportunity in the run-up to the main event: the 2008 race for the White House.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, cautions that it's early to count Allen out of the presidential race, adding that "Allen is much more likely to be forgiven by a Virginia electorate that has known him for 13 years than a national electorate that just got a very rude introduction to him via the macaca gaffe." He says a Webb win in the Senate race would be a "tremendous upset."

The macaca comment "resonated because of Allen's long history of racial insensitivity, from his love affair with all things Confederate to his opposition to the Martin Luther King holiday to his willing association with a racist group that was just detailed in the new issue of Nation," Sabato says, referring to Allen's previous affiliation to the Council of Conservative Citizens, an alleged white supremacy group.

Allen's close association with President Bush and their similar, folksy public persona might not be an asset next year in a country suffering from Bush fatigue, either. Few polls have Bush at more than a 42 percent approval rating.

Surprisingly, Webb's rise in the polls has come without aggressive campaigning from Webb, formerly Ronald Reagan's secretary of the Navy. He has baggage, too, namely a complex stance on affirmative action that prompted many local black leaders to endorse his primary opponent.

So far Webb hasn't really been the one hurting Allen's campaign. "I look at this as not so much Webb vs. Allen as Allen vs. Allen," Rapoport says.

"Webb is kind of almost like a stealth candidate," Palazzolo says. "In the minds of most people who vote in the general election, they're not paying attention — they don't even know who Webb is. He'll reintroduce himself after Labor Day."

The curtain rises as the campaign season kicks off. Soon we'll see whether the macaca moment was more water cooler or watershed.

"You know," Palazzolo says, "politics provides all kinds of opportunities for rebirth." S

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