George Allen is beckoning to newly energized anti-establishment, fiscal-hawk activists with one hand while gripping a beefy political resume in the other as he embarks on a campaign to recapture the Republican nod for the U.S. Senate seat he lost five years ago.
It could prove a tricky balancing act for Mr. Allen, who goes head-to-head against candidates energized by the tea party, which ended the careers of some establishment Republicans last fall.
So in trying to distance himself from the notion that he is a career politician after two years in the U.S. House of Representatives and six years in the Senate - separated by a stint as Virginia governor - he is adopting a familiar campaign line: Us against Washington.
"We have a government that seems to be against us," he said in a recent interview at his Old Town Alexandria office. "Nobody's cheering for anything coming out of Washington."
Two months into his campaign, with at least 14 months more to go, Mr. Allen is moving full speed ahead with a ready supply of criticism aimed at federal deficit spending, continued dependency on foreign oil and a stream of short-term spending plans to keep government running because Congress can't agree on raising the debt ceiling or cutting spending.
Mr. Allen has experience with the federal debt ceiling, having voted four times to raise it to support spending plans of President George W. Bush. Other Bush-era spending he supported included the No Child Left Behind education initiative and the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan.
That support has provided ammunition to fellow GOP contender and tea party favorite Jamie Radtke, who is criticizing Mr. Allen for backing budgets that raised the federal debt by $3.2 trillion during his Senate term - a claim ruled "true" by the fact-checking website PolitiFact.
When asked how he plans to win over Radtke supporters, Mr. Allen rattled off a list of conservative credentials: an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association, a 93 percent rating from the American Conservative Union and accolades from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He ended with a trademark Allen colloquialism: "a 100 percent rating on issues that matter to a lot of folks."
Mr. Allen doesn't directly align himself with the tea party, but he does not hesitate to highlight similarities. He cares about the Constitution. He likes to quote Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan. He, too, doesn't like what's going on in Washington, he said.
The tea partyers represent a positive movement that has added a lot of energy to the debate, Mr. Allen said. But he spreads his net wide by using the term "tea party" broadly, applying it also to much older anti-government spending groups such as the Taxpayers Alliance and Sons of Liberty groups.
His message: It's all of these folks and him versus the Washington machine.
"Why a lot of people are riled up - and you see it with tea parties, the various rallies, the Americans for Prosperity bus tour - that people feel Washington isn't listening to them," Mr. Allen said.
Besides Ms. Radtke, Hampton Roads lawyer David McCormick, a novice to politics and virtually unknown throughout the state, is the only other candidate so far.
Other prospective candidates include conservative firebrand Delegate Robert G. Marshall of Prince William County as well as Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of County Supervisors. Tim Donner, founder of Horizon Television in Great Falls, also is weighing a bid.
Some have suggested that more hats in the race could benefit Mr. Allen by breaking up the opposition vote in the Republican primary. If he carries the day, he likely will be running against former Gov. Tim Kaine, who is said to be close to announcing his candidacy for the Democratic nomination after Sen. Jim Webb declined to run for a second term.
According to the first poll on the race, Mr. Allen could be in good shape for the primary. Public Policy Polling, a liberal-leaning firm that collects data through robocalls instead of live interviews, released a survey showing Mr. Allen with 67 percent support from "usual Republican primary voters."
Mr. Marshall earned a distant second, with 7 percent, while Ms. Radtke received 4 percent and 3 percent apiece went to Mr. McCormick and Mr. Stewart. In a hypothetical matchup with Mr. Kaine, each candidate received 47 percent.
Mr. Allen brushed off the poll, opting instead to bemoan what he sees as a loss of American competitiveness driven by federal overspending.
"I don't believe that our country should continue declining without opportunities for young people to fulfill their American dreams," Mr. Allen said.
Nothing for granted
Considering the way Mr. Allen's last race went, it's not surprising that he isn't touting his front-runner status. In June 2006, he enjoyed a 20-point lead over Mr. Webb. The lead fell to 10 points the next month, and some polls showed Mr. Webb ahead by the end of August.
It was downhill quickly after Mr. Allen made his infamous "macaca" faux pas in which he applied what some say was a racial slur to an Indian-American working for Mr. Webb's campaign. Mr. Webb ended up winning the race by fewer than 10,000 votes.
Mr. Allen isn't straying far from the talking points these days.
He didn't have much to say about a likely race against Mr. Kaine other than to assert that it will most certainly be a tough and a close race. In his position as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Kaine has had to defend national Democratic leaders whose policies have, at times, been less than popular.
As former governors, both candidates would have plenty of records to examine.
"People will see Allen's here, Kaine's here," Mr. Allen said. "People at their kitchen tables will ask who is closer to how we look at it."
But it's clear that Mr. Allen is ready to link Mr. Kaine to Washington - ironic, perhaps, since Mr. Kaine has never held national public office, compared with Mr. Allen's combined eight years in the House and Senate.
"I know that as soon as this primary's over we need to be united to beat the Washington liberals," Mr. Allen said.
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