By Marie Cocco
The unraveling of Virginia Sen. George Allen’s reelection campaign may have begun with a single offensive remark caught on tape, but his competitor’s Lamont-style netroots insurgency is just as responsible for making the race tight.
FREDERICKSBURG, Va.—At this time in a typical even-numbered year, there would be little reason for the Democratic candidate for anything to be squinting beneath a golden early autumn sun—let alone doing his best as the warm-up act for his celebrity endorser, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards.
In a typical even-numbered year, the Democrats in this part of Virginia where suburban sprawl creeps into picturesque, historic towns would customarily brace for another blowout. “We were two-thirds Bush, one-third Kerry,” says Dan Smolen, chairman of the Stafford County Democratic Committee. “However, the needle’s been moving.”
So it was that Jim Webb could hold a small and notably polite campaign rally on the steps of a red-brick building at the University of Mary Washington. Edwards lent star power, not to mention the silky stump delivery that Webb—a longtime public servant but a novice at running for public office—clearly lacks. Webb is a decorated Vietnam War hero, a best-selling novelist, a former secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan and, now, an unlikely Democratic candidate for the Senate in a red state currently represented by one of the reddest Republicans, George Allen.
And Webb just might pull off the upset.
If he does, there’s little doubt the political talking circuit will say Webb is the senator that “macaca” made. That is, the turning point in what no one expected to be a close race came when Allen, at his own campaign event in August, derided a Webb campaign worker of Indian descent, referring to the University of Virginia honor student as macaca—a racial slur in some cultures that refers to a type of monkey. Since then, little has gone right for Allen as he’s oafishly addressed his long-hidden Jewish heritage and tries to fend off other allegations about crude racial incidents in his past.
Webb barely is heard through the static. Yet he seems quietly capable of operating below it.
In a conference call with journalists on Tuesday, before the rally with Edwards, Webb conceded that Allen’s macaca moment was pivotal, because it inspired Virginians to pay attention to a campaign they otherwise might have ignored. “It caused them to focus on the race,” Webb said, and to examine whether or not he presents a legitimate alternative. “The biggest challenge for me right now is to be reaching out to people who generally don’t vote Democratic.”
This is something of an understatement, because the task is large. But it also minimizes the yeomanly political work that Webb already has done. His campaign actually began to take root when he challenged President Bush’s Iraq policy (well before the invasion) and then mounted what seemed to be a quixotic primary campaign against a Democratic loyalist who had the support of the state party apparatus. Webb won.
Much like the movement behind Connecticut’s Ned Lamont, the early Webb campaign was conducted through Internet chatter and small parties at private homes, where Democrats and others looking for an alternative to business-as-usual were gathering quietly—but intently.
Among them was Tony Mastalski, a computer executive and ex-Marine who says he’s never before been involved in partisan politics. Mastalski enlisted in the draft-Webb movement after he saw a television interview with retired Gen. Anthony Zinni in which Zinni (who has endorsed Webb) discussed the foreign policy and military problems stemming from Iraq. Mastalski e-mailed Webb—who was not yet a candidate—for his views. He was astonished to get a reply.
“There are a lot of people that are like me,” Mastalski told me before the rally. “They’re really concerned and they want to see a change.”
The absence of noisy uproar usually does not mark a rebellion. But then, suburban Virginia is not Haight-Ashbury or even Manhattan. The students at Mary Washington stood quietly—some with bowed heads—when Webb reminded them of others in their generation, his own son among them, who are serving in the military rather than studying on a sun-dappled campus lawn. “Stop for a minute to think about the young men and women who are doing a different thing,” the candidate urged.
The din of a tough campaign gets louder as November approaches. Both Allen and Webb already have hit the airwaves with scorching ads. It may turn out that Allen loses his Senate seat and dashes his presidential aspirations because he developed a terminal case of foot-in-mouth. But it should also be known that the quiet footsteps of discontent were coming up behind him, and weren’t heard because too few listened.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.