“If the only concern on your mind is your lunch, I can stop talking,” Allen says through a laugh.
Allen is undoubtedly a more calculating candidate this time around. As he leaves the senior center, he’s asked about where he stands on GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial entitlement plans, which would overhaul Medicare and Medicaid to tame the deficit. “I admire Paul Ryan for putting forward a proposal,” he says. It’s as much of a commitment as he would make, besides repeating his vow to repeal the Democratic health care overhaul. (Allen’s campaign declined a sit-down interview for this story, although he willingly answered questions between stops on the trail.)
It’s not the only issue that Allen has dodged. Perhaps worried about alienating those Northern Virginians, he has been slippery when asked about whether women should have an ultrasound before an abortion, as required under a new state law, and on pay-equity legislation for women that is stalled in Congress (although he says he supports equal pay).
If among the advice that Allen received during his years in the wilderness was to do a better job keeping his trap shut, he has listened.
The new Allen may be a more disciplined, effective candidate, but absent the firebrand rhetoric, he is no longer a conservative heartthrob. During his appearance with Rubio, it was clear which man was on the upswing of his career. Elizabeth Blackney, an Allen supporter who worked as a Republican political strategist in Virginia during his 2000 Senate run, says that the crowd at a recent rally with Gov. Bob McDonnell in Virginia Beach was tepid. “The contrast with George’s crowds in 2000 was marked,” Blackney says.
At any given Allen event, somewhere in the crowd, Alan Piracha is a living, breathing, filming reminder of what can go wrong on the stump. Last year the Virginia Democratic Party tapped Piracha, a soft-spoken 24-year-old, to videotape Allen’s every public utterance this campaign. He also, like S.R. Sidarth, the young man Allen called “macaca” six years ago, is darker-skinned and is of South Asian descent.
“Just a coincidence,” insists Moran, the party chairman.
This spring, at Virginia’s annual Shad Planking, a fish-fry staple of the state’s political circuit, yellow-clad Allen supporters tried to position their signs to block Piracha’s camera. The cat-and-mouse game that day also included a small cohort of unhappy Confederate activists waving giant flags. They were angry that Allen’s repentance tour had included, in their view, the sullying of the symbol of the Confederacy.
“He had stepped into ‘macaca’ and was wiping it off his boots with our battle flag,” says Frank Earnest, who was wearing a black T-shirt with the Confederate flag and the call number 1-800-MY-SOUTH on it.
“Macaca” may have faded as an issue for average Virginians—a 2011 Washington Post poll had only 15 percent of pivotal independents rating it an “extremely” or “very” important issue—but it continues to cast a shadow over the race. The good news for Allen is that the economy is the issue that has captivated the 2012 electorate, and on that question he holds an edge over Kaine.
A May Washington Post poll found that 54 percent of Virginians called it “extremely important”—and among those voters Allen held a 12-point lead, 53 percent to 41 percent. It’s one of the reasons that Kaine has hammered Allen on his spending record and is running to the Republican’s right on fiscal stewardship. Kaine has tried to turn Allen’s time as governor, during the prosperous 1990s, into a liability by talking about skyrocketing government spending. Kaine, who governed during a recession, points to the economy-forced dip in spending on his watch. As with Allen, super PACs are broadcasting Kaine’s message on the airwaves.
There is also a subtle suggestion in the attacks that Allen, who speaks in a continuous churn of simplified sports metaphors, isn’t up to the job. Few describe him as an intellectual. “I know George and I know his limitations,” says Davis, the former House member, who calls Allen a friend. “George is aware of his limitations, as well.” He reluctantly continues: “There are a lot of people in this business who don’t know what they don’t know…. George is not that kind of guy.”
What is clear is that the Democrats who underestimate Allen, as they did George W. Bush, do so at their peril. Allen may be a candidate chastened—losing, he admits, is “a humbling experience”—but he is also a candidate driven and determined.
The final sports story in his book is that of former Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer. It is a thinly veiled parable for Allen’s own stumbles, and his hopes for redemption. Allen tells how Kilmer persevered through a series of off-field errors and yet always “got up and came back fighting every time.” The climactic moment comes when Kilmer fumbles the ball, only to watch the other team scoop it up and run the wrong way to score for Kilmer’s team. Allen’s takeaway: “You never know how a fumble might turn out.”
“Because we’re not perfect, ‘self-inflicted wounds’ are almost inevitable,” he writes. “But the optimistic, overcoming, fighting spirit that Kilmer displayed on the football field also holds out this possibility: Even when you fumble, you might be able to score points.”
This article appears in the June 23, 2012, edition of National Journal.