George Allen raises money for Jim Webb

Since the Virginia senator said "macaca," the polls -- and the cash - have moved in his Democratic challenger's direction.

Published August 23, 2006 4:10PM (EDT)

Until last week, Jim Webb, the Vietnam War hero who wants to be Virginia's next senator, looked like he was losing the battle. The Reaganite turned Democrat had a campaign bogged down by disorganization, not enough money in the bank, and no real fire on the stump. While he scraped by with photocopied black-and-white fliers, his Republican opponent, Sen. George Allen, blitzed the state with warm and fuzzy television ads and glossy direct mail. At a candidate debate in July, Allen clobbered Webb by forcing him to admit that he had never heard of Craney Island, one of the state's big economic development projects. By the end of the month, a major public poll showed Allen sitting pretty with a double-digit lead.

Back in Washington, the Democratic high rollers and strategists were looking for better odds. To win back the Senate, the party needs to pick up six Republican seats in November, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is sitting on a pile of money, roughly $35 million, to make that happen. Polls show that Democratic Senate candidates are on the verge of victory in five states -- Rhode Island, Missouri, Montana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Party strategists, always optimistic, were looking closely at Arizona or Tennessee to provide the sixth seat.

But then last week, Allen called a 20-year-old Indian-American Webb volunteer "macaca," an obscure racial slur that is also a word for monkey. And now the political bookies have begun to reshuffle the odds.

In the past week, Allen's double-digit lead over Webb has narrowed to three points in one poll by Survey USA and five points in another by Rasmussen Reports. At the same time, Webb political consultant Steve Jarding says fundraising has tripled since the Webb campaign posted the video of Allen's "macaca" remark on YouTube. "It opened a lot of people's eyes," Jarding said. "Ironically, it was Allen who was the one who kicked the door open."

ActBlue, a preferred source of online fundraising for many liberal bloggers and online activists, recorded a huge spike in donations for Webb in the week after the video of Allen was released. Between Aug. 6 and Aug. 12, ActBlue collected about $5,000 for Webb from 59 donors. In the week that followed, 959 donors gave $34,748 to the Webb campaign through the online service. The national media coverage of the event has been expansive, with segments on CNN and "Nightline" and editorials in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

Macaca-gate got so bad Dick Wadhams, Allen's campaign manager, wrote a long memo Saturday to Allen supporters acknowledging "a tough week" and blaming the media for starting a "feeding frenzy" over the senator's comment. "Never in modern times," wrote Wadhams, "has a statewide officeholder and candidate been so vilified in a desperate attempt to revive a campaign that was fast-sinking -- the Webb campaign."

In an interview Tuesday with Salon, Chris LaCivita, another advisor to Allen, said that he was not worried about the recent polls, noting that the Survey USA poll once showed Allen 19 points ahead, an unlikely margin. "I didn't believe 19 points and I don't believe three points." Both Rasmussen and Survey USA use automated recordings, or robots, to conduct their interviews, a technique that is still viewed with some skepticism by many pollsters. Most electoral handicappers continue to favor Allen, a one-term incumbent who previously served as governor of Virginia.

But Jarding said his campaign's own internal polls, which he would not release, had noted a shift similar to the Survey USA poll. He said the biggest shifts away from Allen were registered by young voters, women in Northern Virginia and, surprisingly, residents of the conservative bastion of rural southwestern Virginia. Allen made his "macaca" comment at an appearance in the southwestern corner of the state. "We actually moved somewhat dramatically," Jarding said. "I think people were offended by it."

It remains unclear, however, if Webb will be able to capitalize on shift going into November. Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said that the DSCC must first decide to fully commit to the race, something that the organization, led by New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, has so far failed to do. "I have seen nothing from them, nothing but hesitation," said Sabato. "If Webb doesn't start advertising after Labor Day, then it is over." (On Tuesday, the campaign released its first Internet ad, an attack piece tying Allen to President Bush.) Phil Singer, a spokesman for the DSCC, would not comment on the organization's plans. "We have always been remarkably interested in this state," he said Tuesday. "We think it is within even more reach now."

The Webb campaign is still bracing for the torrent of attack ads that is widely expected from the Allen camp. In his long career as a writer and speaker, Webb has taken many nuanced, though controversial, positions that could be used against him -- not necessarily to move voters into Allen's column but to alienate Democrats and depress turnout. He once wrote that affirmative action was a form of "state-sponsored racism." He wrote a 1979 article called "Women Can't Fight," describing why female soldiers should not be on the battlefield. In a 1990 speech, he praised the heroism of the Confederate army, saying that "most Southern soldiers viewed the driving issue to be sovereignty rather than slavery." Wadhams has already accused the Webb campaign of distributing an anti-Semitic cartoon of his Democratic primary opponent, Harris Miller, a charge contested by Webb's supporters.

But the macaca incident may hurt Allen's ability to demonize his opponent, especially if Virginians see Allen's attacks as an extension of the bullying behavior he exhibited last week. "Their plan was to spend a lot of TV money on offense," said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a Democratic strategist who is helping the Webb campaign. "And now I think they are going to be forced to spend a lot of money on defense. Defense doesn't win you any new votes."

This is especially true if a backlash against Allen's comments develops among rural Virginians, whom Allen often calls the "real Americans" in stump speeches. Mudcat, an anti-Allen partisan who lives in southern Virginia, says he believes that Virginians will increasingly see through Allen's act to his roots as the wealthy child of a football coach who grew up near Los Angeles. "He is a California beach hippie," said Saunders, who recently wrote a book about how Democrats can win Southern elections. "He is a guy from outside our culture who comes in here dressed like Gene Autry and tarnishes our culture."

This is the sort of culture war that Allen never wanted. He has been stumping on issues like gay marriage and flag burning, hoping to ride his charisma and cowboy boots to victory. But those plans must now be retooled. If the polls are to be believed, Allen's gaffe hit the restart button on the entire Virginia Senate race. With two and a half months until Election Day, Allen's victory is once again in doubt.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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2006 Elections Jim Webb Virginia