Now Virginia is ground zero in the presidential air wars. Some weeks, the once-sleepy Norfolk media market has the most political advertising in the country. For Allen and Kaine, that saturation means that, despite their multimillion-dollar operations, they hold far less control over their political destinies than they would like. Obama and Romney, the likely GOP nominee, are expected to drive the turnout here, with the Senate candidates left to compete around the margins. “I suspect this race will probably go the way of the presidential race,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who once headed the House GOP’s national campaign operations.
The battle, then, has centered on the thin reed of voters who might split their tickets: the near-mythical Obama-Allen and Romney-Kaine voters. For Allen, that means making inroads in Northern Virginia, where he hopes his message of laissez-faire economics and a renewed push for cheaper, domestic energy resonates (he has a “Friends of Coal” bumper sticker on his Ford Explorer). He also regularly dispatches his telegenic wife, Susan, who has her own full-time traveling aide.
Kaine, meanwhile, is leaning on his more centrist record as governor to sell himself to working-class whites who are disaffected with the president, particularly in Kaine’s hometown of Richmond and in the state’s more Appalachian areas. Kaine is also courting D.C.’s wealthy suburbs, notably tailoring his definition of the rich, for taxation purposes, at $500,000, double Obama’s threshold. Northern Virginia is home to some of the nation’s most prosperous counties.
To prevent any crossover by GOP voters, Allen has sought to closely bind Kaine to Obama, portraying him as a D.C. insider beholden to the party line. Outside groups have amplified that message on the airwaves.
It’s a line of attack that reveals Allen at his folksy finest. He is at ease campaigning as an outsider, taking aim at overreaching “federales” who strangle the private sector. He won his Senate seat in 2000 by ousting the Democratic incumbent, Chuck Robb, and the governor’s race before that as an underdog. “People are unhappy with Washington, as I am,” Allen says.
No matter that Allen himself is a former governor, senator, congressman, and state legislator, as well as the owner of a Washington-area public-affairs firm. “He always ran as an insurgent,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “He feels better as an insurgent.”
Kaine, meanwhile, reminds voters at every turn of his opponent’s six years in the Senate, where Allen was a loyal Republican foot soldier, rising to the ranks of Senate leadership during the big-spending Bush years. “George Allen’s approach helped create our economic mess,” Kaine said the night that Allen secured the GOP nomination. “Virginians can’t afford six more years” of that.
BUMPS ALONG THE WAY
As Allen wraps up speaking to the more than 60 Republicans gathered among ovens and washing machines at the appliance store, he notices something amiss. The American flag is in the wrong spot. It’s Campaign 101 that the nation’s flag should be displayed on the viewer’s left, with any state or local flag on the right. So Allen walks over and drags the flags into their proper places in front of a giant Allen for Senate sign.
“It’s flag protocol,” he says.
After Allen’s six-year hiatus from the trail, his new campaign apparatus is not yet firing on all cylinders. He has trailed Kaine in fundraising in recent months, falling almost $2 million behind. By late May, Allen had burned through nearly $4 million without airing a single television commercial. His campaign insists it is simply building a modern, grassroots infrastructure to succeed. But as Allen barnstormed in the bedroom communities of suburban Washington earlier this month, he had to navigate through a series of hiccups, glitches, and small crowds.
After the flag incident at the appliance store, the next stop is a realty office run by Pakistani-American Javed Baig. Baig’s staff is shooting video as everyone crams into the office’s mint-colored hallway. Baig says that it’s footage for a pro-Allen commercial that will run on Pakistani channels this fall. The scene, though, seems as much about securing Allen’s endorsement of Baig’s realty firm than the other way around. As Baig introduces Allen, he annunciates his company’s name and then reaches back to shake Allen’s hand without ever breaking eye contact with the camera. Unhappy with the first take, he does it again. Allen’s two aides shift uncomfortably, whispering about a quick exit.
Later, at a nearby senior center, the microphone cuts out as Allen tries to deliver an abbreviated stump speech. The seniors are assembled in their lunchroom, awaiting their seafood pasta, milk, apple juice, pudding, and dinner rolls. When Allen asks for questions, 68-year-old Donna Cermak instantly shoots up her hand. She wants to know: Can they get their lunches already?