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Charm/offensive
Meet George Allen, Republican ĎItí Boy
BY ADAM REILLY
Related links

Senator George Allen, R-Virginia

George Allenís senatorial home page.

Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coachís Daughter

Memoir by Jennifer Allen, Senator Allenís sister. Includes extensive detail on the senatorís raucous and apparently violent youth.

Commonwealth Conservative: George Allen the Frontrunner?

Discussion of Allenís presidential buzz from a good conservative blog focused on Virginia politics.

The Decembrist: A Tough Question for George Allen

More discussion of Allenís presidential prospects from a blogger on the liberal end of the political spectrum.

Manchester, NH ó He is a political Frankenstein, a mix of the last three two-term presidents. The crinkly-eyed smiles and effusive empathy are Clintonian. The redneck swagger and testiness evoke George W. Bush. Finally ó and fittingly, since Ronald Reagan is one of his heroes ó George Allen looks downright Gipper-esque as he discusses Americaís bright future, gazing vaguely into the distance as if lost in a reverie or searching for a teleprompter.

Itís these qualities, more than any concrete ideas or achievements, that have made the junior senator from Virginia an early favorite for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. And they should strike fear into the hearts of liberals everywhere.

This spring, a National Journal poll of Republican insiders named the 53-year-old Allen the partyís top presidential contender, ahead of several better-known rivals. Since then, the buzz around Allen ó a former congressman who was Virginiaís governor from 1994 to 1998, and who defeated Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb to win his Senate seat in 2000 ó has continued to build. Reporters from Virginia now follow Allen around the country in the same way Massachusetts reporters trail Romney, pushing him to discuss his plans and settling for pat assurances that Allen is focused on representing the good people of Virginia.

Today, though, Allen is taking a break from this responsibility. Itís a Saturday in late June, and he has traveled to New England to charm the GOP die-hards at the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Womenís Lilac Luncheon. Before he speaks, Allen methodically greets a throng of well-wishers packed into a cavernous function hall at the Manchester Radisson, hoping for a snapshot and a quick chat. The senatorís posture hints at his pedigree: a son of NFL Hall of Fame coach George Allen Sr., the former University of Virginia quarterback still carries himself like an athlete ó leaned slightly forward, arms loose at his sides, one cowboy-booted foot bearing most of his weight. And as he schmoozes with the unknown men and women who may become his ground troops in a few years, itís clear Allen is a campaign-trail natural. The men get hearty backslaps, the women solicitous touches on the shoulder, and every handshake is held a few seconds longer than usual for maximum effect.

Through it all, George Will ó the Newsweek columnist, ABC-TV commentator, and conservative agenda-setter ó watches intently. Will is here to research an upcoming column, but heís already convinced that the hype surrounding his subject is legitimate. For starters, he tells me, Allenís gubernatorial experience should reduce the liability inherent in running as a senator (see John Kerry, 2004).

Moreover, Will adds, Allenís personal charm would be a potent weapon during the primaries, which still give inordinate weight to the small states of New Hampshire and Iowa. "If you take the opinion polls right now, itís mostly name recognition ó itís Giuliani and McCain and everyone else ó but theyíre meaningless at this point," he says. "[Allen] has the manner.... You hate to condemn someone with this in Republican eyes, but he has Clintonís people skills one-on-one. And in this state and everywhere else, early in the process, itís retail politics."

A rage to win

So it is ó and Allen watchers from both parties agree this is where the senator is strongest. "He is probably one of the most gifted politicians Iíve ever seen," admits one Virginia Democrat. "Heís very gifted and very skilled ó heís your typical backslapping, glad-handing politician that everyone wants to have a beer with on their front porch. Heís just a very good communicator, in the mode of George W. Bush."

Given Allenís biography, the Bush comparison is especially apt. Like Bush, Allen wasnít born a good olí boy. He came of age in Southern California, where his father coached the Los Angeles Rams and raised his family in the exclusive Palos Verdes Peninsula. Yet in Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coachís Daughter (Random House), Jennifer Allen, the senatorís sister, hints that her brother craved a different environment from an early age. "George loved Hee Haw," Allen writes. "His favorite character was big, slow-witted Junior.... There was ... something mildly country-thuggish about Junior that I think George felt akin to." Whenever this affinity was born, it bloomed after Allen transferred from UCLA. Today, the senatorís fondness for what he considers the trappings of a down-home Virginian (shotguns, country music, chewing tobacco, the aforementioned cowboy boots) is the stuff of political lore.

Allenís mind, too, resembles Bushís. While much has been made of Clintonís restless mental agility, both Bushís admirers and detractors consider his relentless focus a defining trait. This goes for Allen as well, but with an odd twist: the senator seems to process every new bit of data by making a football analogy. In Manchester, the Phoenix asked Allen to describe himself to New Englanders. "I did grow up in a football family," he replies in a slow, slight Southern drawl. "And I do believe in a meritocracy and a level playing field for all people. And I am competitive." Then he switches gears, touching briefly on domestic priorities (training more engineers to make America the "world capital of innovation") and international goals ("to continue the march of freedom") before name-checking Reagan and another Virginia politician, Thomas Jefferson. "Iím optimistic about the future," Allen concludes. "But itís not easy. Itís not as if everything just ó things naturally happen, and donít happen, or will happen, even if no one makes an effort. But you have to have the right policy, the right leadership. And I think you can motivate people to those goals."

It is a telling exchange. When Allen takes on a tricky subject, like the contingent nature of progress, he can flounder. But if he uses football metaphors to make problems simple and manageable, he fares better. Football seems to function as a kind of mental security blanket for Allen ó a touchstone he uses to ground himself before venturing into less comfortable territory.

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Issue Date: July 1 - 7, 2005
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