George Allen, the odds-on favorite to win Virginia’s GOP Senate primary Tuesday, is already working feverishly to win over the coveted independent vote for a high-stakes November matchup with Democrat Tim Kaine that will help determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate come January.
The former Virginia governor and U.S. senator wrapped up a two-week tour of the state Monday with an appearance at a Northern Virginia business with Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has stressed bipartisanship in his first 2 1/2 years in office and remains one of the nation’s most popular governors.
Capping off the tour by appearing with the Virginia governor, who despite a contentious General Assembly session has retained support across the political spectrum, underscores the notion that Mr. Allen has been steeling for a general election fight since he entered the race in January 2011.
“George Allen has kept his eye on the general election and has avoided saying anything or making decisions that could come back to haunt him,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “That’s smart politics. One of the bigger problems facing Mitt Romney now is having to deal with all the more extreme things he said to get the Republican nomination. George Allen doesn’t have that problem.”
Still, Mr. Allen is quick to deny looking past Tuesday.
“It is vitally important that we take nothing for granted,” he told a crowd of about 100 at the technology company Prototype Productions Inc. on Monday. “I don’t care what the weather is tomorrow - it could be storming, raining, hail, sunny, hot, whatever it may be, we need your vote. We need to send a message.”
When asked what percentage would be sufficient to send that message, Mr. Allen, who frequently peppers his speeches and appearances with sports metaphors, quoted the late Al Davis, the former owner of the Oakland Raiders.
“Just win, baby,” he said. “The bigger the turnout, the stronger the message.”
The effusive Mr. Allen is eyeing what would be one of the more remarkable political comebacks in recent history. Unlike his undisciplined, gaffe-strewn re-election campaign in 2006, in which he narrowly lost to Democrat Jim Webb, Mr. Allen has stayed on message this time around.
He has largely ignored charges from both the right and the left that he was a willing enabler of Washington’s profligate spending during the two terms of President George W. Bush. He has also declined Democrats’ calls for him to take definitive stands on lightning-rod issues for the GOP - a measure Congress is weighing that is intended to make it easier for women to achieve pay equity, for example.
Instead, he has toured the state touting his tax cuts for small businesses, reining in federal regulations on carbon emissions, and championing a balanced-budget amendment and the line-item veto, as he did as a U.S. senator.
Mr. Allen holds a big-time name recognition and fundraising advantage over his three opponents - tea party leader Jamie Radtke, Delegate Robert G. Marshall of Prince William County and Chesapeake Bishop E.W. Jackson.
“When you have those two advantages, you have the luxury of worrying mainly about the general election,” Mr. Farnsworth said.
Mr. Allen’s recent appearances with Mr. McDonnell, a staunch social conservative who ran as a pragmatic, problem-solving job creator in 2009, speak to the importance of the approximately 10 percent of the electorate that’s undecided. Mr. Allen has been in a dead heat with Mr. Kaine, also a former Virginia governor, for virtually the entire race.
Mr. McDonnell on Monday noted that the political winds are much different now from what they were in 2006, when Mr. Allen and Republicans across the country suffered big losses amid a backlash against Mr. Bush and the Iraq War. After Virginia Democrats took control of the state Senate in 2007 and President Obama became the first Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson to carry Virginia in 2008, Republicans scored decisive gains in election cycles in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
“I’d say it’s a pretty good trend for Republicans and independent conservatives doing well, so we’re very bullish about this - this is a much better year,” Mr. McDonnell said. “The reaction to the big government entitlement society created by this president is significant in Virginia. That’s why I think you see so many independents - the reasons they voted for me are the reasons they’re going to vote for George Allen this year.”
Still, while scores of elected officials lined up behind one of the Republican candidates for the primary, Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, considered by many to be conservatives’ current standard-bearer in the state, declined to offer an endorsement.
“We are going to be very active in supporting our nominees in 2012,” Noah Wall, Mr. Cuccinelli’s political director, wrote in an email. “We intend on taking all reasonable steps to make sure Virginia elects a Republican US Senator and President this November.”
Mr. Wall also stressed that Mr. Cuccinelli’s team has been working with the party for months to help its efforts and plans to continue doing so as the fall elections approach.
If Mr. Allen defeats the other GOP contenders Tuesday, the margin of victory could be important with regard to turnout.
In Virginia’s March presidential primary, Mr. Romney could not crack the 60 percent threshold in a head-to-head matchup with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who averaged only about 10 percent in the previous six primaries. Then-contenders former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania failed to qualify for the ballot, and turnout dropped dramatically compared with four years ago. Just more than 269,000 people voted in the March primary, down from the nearly 490,000 who voted in 2008 when Sen. John McCain of Arizona won with 50 percent of the vote.
Though Mr. Romney has picked up significant momentum since clinching the nomination, the numbers at the time pointed to his seeming inability to win over conservatives and unify the party around his candidacy.
Mr. Farnsworth, though, said Tuesday’s margin wouldn’t matter come November. He pointed to disaffected Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters who backed Mr. Obama in 2008 and the current coalescing of Republican support around Mr. Romney.
“I don’t think too many Republicans, even if they preferred another candidate in the primary, are going to abandon the Republicans in November,” he said.
Polls are open Tuesday from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m. There is no official party registration in Virginia, so any qualified voter can cast a ballot. Voters without identification can sign an affidavit to cast their ballot as the new state law requiring Virginians to bring identification to the polls doesn’t kick in until July 1.