The Old Dominion's New Math
The election's calculus is on vivid display in Virginia
MANASSAS, VA.-When Sen. George Allen arrived at the tiny airport here last week to accept the endorsement of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition, the group's chairman told him he hadn't cut his ponytail since the 9/11 attacks. The chairman, John Molloy, said it was a show of defiance against Islamic terrorists, inspired by the story of an American frontiersman who grew his hair in defiance of Indian scalpers. That's precisely why the United States can't pull out of Iraq, Allen told him. "If we leave," Allen said, "they'll strike us again."
But in his speech to the assembled crowd of veterans a few minutes later, Allen-whose calls for "staying the course" in Iraq have been playing across the state in TV ads for Democratic challenger Jim Webb-struck a different tone. "It's clear that mistakes were made [in Iraq] and that progress has been far too slow," he said. "We cannot continue to do the same things and expect different results." It's the kind of criticism that vulnerable Republican Senate incumbents, and even the White House, are suddenly adopting as Iraq continues to spiral downward. "If you are embracing the 'We're not going to change anything in Iraq' strategy, you are going to lose," says a top GOP adviser to Senate candidates. "We need smart strategy rather than slogans like 'stay the course.'"
Adjustments. For some Republican senators, though, it may be too late. In the past two weeks, party strategists have privately begun to cede seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Montana and to refocus resources on protecting incumbents in red states like Missouri and Tennessee, where spending from the National Republican Senatorial Committee shot from zero to $2.5 million just since the beginning of the month. While Republicans-along with some Democrats and independent analysts-are still doubtful that they will lose the six seats that would change control of the Senate, the GOP's so-called firewall of protection may now be down to as few as two or three seats. Which means that Virginia could determine Senate control.
No Senate race in the nation has tightened as dramatically as the Old Dominion's. A former Virginia governor, Allen was thought a shoo-in for re-election and was mulling a 2008 White House bid until a video of him calling a Webb volunteer of Indian descent "macaca" was posted online in August, drawing national attention. "Macaca got Webb a lot more press and saved us at least a million dollars in ads," says Webb pollster Pete Brodnitz. Allen's fumbling response to revelations about his previously unacknowledged Jewish ancestry last month-"I still had a ham sandwich for lunch, and my mother made great pork chops"-further alarmed even many GOP officials. Such gaffes helped Webb out-fundraise Allen by $1 million in the past quarter and forced the NRSC to pony up nearly $1 million in response. Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams blames the rhetorical missteps for recent polls showing the race to be in a dead heat: "It's competitive not because of anything Webb has done."