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COVER STORY

Running Back

After a dramatic fall from grace six years ago, a humbled George Allen has returned to the trail, seeking his old Senate seat. But the specter of his “macaca” moment is never far away.

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Off the bench: Allen presses the flesh at Virginia’s Shad Planking event.(Shane Goldmacher)

WOODBRIDGE, Va.—George Allen just doesn’t spit like he used to.

The Republican Senate candidate still travels the campaign trail in black cowboy boots. He still sports the occasional outsized belt buckle. But for a man who used to proudly tout his ability to refuel on chaw without ever touching the tobacco, there is nary a spit cup to be seen.

 

It’s not that the former and would-be future GOP senator from Virginia doesn’t still chew tobacco. Those who know him say that he does. But he has excised the ritual from his political persona. If Allen has made a conscious decision about this, he doesn’t let on. “You know what Mark Twain once said?” he says, his boots clomping across a parking lot after an hour of shaking voters’ hands in a suburban appliance store. “Nothing needs more reforming than somebody else’s habit.”

Six years ago, much of Allen’s tattered image was in need of reforming, his tobacco dipping the least of his problems. He had just lost a bitter reelection campaign that had transformed him from a vaunted presidential hopeful into an unemployed politician—and one caricatured as a racist bully at that. It was a dismal loss punctuated by his use of the word “macaca,” the obscure ethnic slur heard around the political world.

Now, as Allen tries to mount a historic comeback—only two ousted U.S. senators in the past 50 years have returned to that august body after losing reelection—it’s not just the tobacco that’s missing. Gone is much of the swagger that marked his ascent to national prominence, the bravado and good ol’ boy authenticity that once drew rave reviews from conservative pundits and favorable comparisons to the likes of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Everywhere Allen goes, a new Democratic “tracker” follows, ready to catch any slip-ups. And just like the subject of the “macaca” moment six years ago, the tracker is of South Asian descent.

 

To borrow from the sports analogies that Allen, the son of a Hall of Fame NFL coach by the same name, so loves, he can look at times very much like the ballplayer who missed his last shot or dropped the last pass thrown his way: tight, tentative, cautious, even constrained.

As he crisscrosses the commonwealth, Allen is trying to get his mojo back, betting on the fact that if there is one thing America loves better than tearing down its heroes, it’s building them back up again. The first step in his recovery came earlier this month when he swatted away three GOP primary opponents with ease. The bigger test looms in November when he faces Democrat Tim Kaine, who, like Allen, is a popular former governor with a track record of political success. Poll after poll has pegged the race as a dead heat.

The stakes could not be higher. Many analysts see Virginia as a bellwether for control of the Senate. Kaine and Allen have raised more than $15 million between them. Super PACs for each side are armed for battle. And the national party committees have already reserved nearly $13 million in television airtime here this fall—more than in any other state.

In 2006, it was Allen’s defeat that cost the GOP the Senate. This year, he could be the deciding vote to take it back.

 

A DEEP-ROOTED TREE

For those who know George Allen, the question of a political comeback was always one of when, not if.

The candidate stands more than 6 feet tall, with broad athletic shoulders that make him seem even taller, even if time has stooped them slightly. He grew up in a fiercely competitive family and played quarterback in high school and at the University of Virginia. His role model was his father, the hard-charging head coach of the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins who prized winning above all else. The elder Allen traded draft picks he didn’t control, hired a spy to scout his competition, and once even denied knowing his own son (George’s brother Bruce) because Bruce had heckled an official during a game and was about to draw a penalty. “That kid’s not with us,” coach Allen told the referee.

While out of office, George Allen wrote What Washington Can Learn From the World of Sports, and in the book he recounted one of his dad’s favorite sayings: “Every time you lose, you die inside; but every time you win, you’re reborn.” At 60, Allen quite simply isn’t ready to be counted among the dead.

“As you learn from sports, when you get knocked down, you get back up,” says Allen, who spoke with National Journal during a recent swing across Northern Virginia, “and my father would always say, ‘Don’t brood over your mistakes—learn from them and improve.’ And I think of that every single day, and more often than once a day.”

No mistake, of course, was more fateful than what happened that day in 2006 when Allen, while campaigning near the Kentucky border, called out a 20-year-old Indian-American who was tracking him for his Senate opponent. “Let’s give a welcome to macaca, here,” Allen said, pointing. “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.” Allen quickly apologized, saying he didn’t know the word could be taken as an ethnic slur, but it was too late. The fallout consumed much of the rest of the campaign.

This article appears in the June 23, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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