When Virginia legislators gathered around Gov. George Allen’s kitchen table in 1994 and told the Republican they thought eliminating parole would never work, he dismissed their skepticism in plain terms: “Nothing’s impossible.”
It was that attitude and his work as governor that made national Republicans take notice and begin considering Mr. Allen, now a U.S. senator, as a 2008 presidential contender.
Mr. Allen, seeking a second term on Nov. 7, had hoped accomplishments such as parole abolition would define his candidacy and secure an easy re-election. Instead, calling an Indian-American staffer for Democratic challenger James H. Webb Jr. “macaca” this summer thrust the race into the national spotlight and made it a neck-and-neck contest.
“All this stuff he did as governor, it’s absolutely unbelievable,” said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican, who recalled the kitchen meeting. “But no one ever knows anything about that because all they hear about is ‘macaca.’ ”
Mr. Allen has apologized and says he made up the word, adding he never would have used it had he known it was considered a racial slur in some cultures.
Still, the incident set in motion a chain of events that have kept the cowboy-boot-wearing Mr. Allen below 50 percent in the polls, despite his past popularity in Virginia and a more-than-20-year political career.
Some of Mr. Allen’s former football teammates at the University of Virginia told reporters that as a young man he regularly used racial slurs to describe blacks, but Mr. Allen, 54, says the “N-word” was never part of his vocabulary, and most teammates say they never heard him use the term.
The tobacco-chewing senator is often teased for making too many football references during legislative speeches, but says the game has shaped his governing philosophy.
Mr. Allen says his father, the late famed Redskins coach George H. Allen, taught him the four “F’s” — faith, freedom, family and football.
Among those football lessons: “Get knocked down, get back up,” and a player’s ability to “catch, kick, punt or long snap” is more important than his background.
“You don’t care about [players’] race, religion, their ethnicity, what college they went to,” Mr. Allen says. “You care about whether they can help the team win. [Football is] a true meritocracy, where everyone has that equal opportunity to compete and succeed, based upon their own hard work, diligence and capabilities. That’s what we should aspire to in our society.”
That theory has led to Mr. Allen’s own trademarked brand of politicking — “commonsense Jeffersonian conservatism.”
He says the ideals include limited government, low taxes and improving education to keep the United States globally competitive.
This year is the first time Mr. Allen, a former state lawmaker and congressman, has had to run a major race as the establishment candidate instead of as a reformer. That style helped him unseat two-term Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb in 2000.
Most Virginians remember Mr. Allen for his gubernatorial record — parole abolition, welfare reform and working with a Democrat-controlled state legislature to create nationally recognized education standards.