The hotly contested race for U.S. Senate between incumbent George Allen (R) and Democrat Jim Webb appeared too close to call early Wednesday morning, according to unofficial election returns.
With 99.84 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday, Webb held a slight lead Ñ only 7,046 votes Ñ with 49.55 percent of the vote over Allen's 49.25 percent.
As Webb began to widen his slim lead in the polls early Wednesday morning, the Democrat declared victory at his Tysons Corner election night party.
ÒThe votes are in,Ó Webb said. ÒAnd we won.Ó
"When we look at where the votes are that have yet to be counted, it looks very very good for our side," said Webb, speaking before hundreds of cheering supporters at a Tysons Corner hotel. "It's going to take a while to count all these votes. I've been in a lot of fights in my life. This is nothing new."
A recount of the vote totals appears likely. Because the margin between the two candidates is less than half a percent, the state will fund the recount. A recount would not get underway until the election results are certified on Nov. 27.
Allen, 54, a former governor of Virginia and a one-term incumbent, was watching the election returns with his supporters in Richmond on Tuesday night. As of Wednesday morning, he had not conceded.
Northern Virginia appears to have strongly backed Webb. The Democrat won the majority of votes in Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax County, Loudoun County and Prince William County. Fairfax County voters favored Webb with 59 percent of the vote, while he carried Arlington with 73 percent and Alexandria with 71 percent.
If Allen is unseated by Webb, 60, a best-selling novelist and decorated Vietnam War veteran, control of the U.S. Senate could potentially tip to the Democrats. Democrats won four new Senate seats, with Democrats holding tiny leads in the pending races in Virginia and Montana. Democrats need six seats to take the Senate.
In the House of Representatives, Democrats wrested control from the GOP with 27 Democratic pick-ups. Locally, however, Democratic challengers failed to unseat U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) and U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11).
SIX MONTHS AGO, Allen's re-election was all but a foregone conclusion. He was up 16 points in the polls and boasted a $7.5 million fundraising advantage. He was seen as possible candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
But then, with one word, it all fell apart. At an Aug. 11 campaign stop in southwest Virginia, Allen referred to an Indian-American as "Macaca" Ñ a genus of monkey and a racial slur in some cultures Ñ and "welcomed" him to "America and the real world of Virginia." A video of the incident was posted online and downloaded more than 90,000 times from www.youtube.com.
Allen plummeted in the polls. Suddenly, the race was a statistical dead heat.
In the weeks that followed, more stories emerged of Allen's alleged racial insensitivity. According to a dozen past acquaintances, Allen used racial epithets frequently in his youth, hung a noose from a ficus tree in his law office, wore a Confederate battle flag pin in his high school yearbook and allegedly once cut off a deer's head and stuffed it in a black family's mailbox.
But Allen's troubles grew even more bizarre. During a McLean debate in September, he was asked by a reporter about his possible Jewish heritage. Allen reacted as if he had been slapped and chided the reporter for "casting aspersions." A few days later, Allen admitted that his mother is in fact Jewish, but that she had kept it secret from him. He added that he "still ate a ham sandwich for lunch."
Allen found himself as the punch line (again) on the late-night talk shows in October when he accused Webb of writing sex scenes in his historical novels about the Vietnam War. Following Allen's attack, his opponent jumped ahead of him in nearly every poll.
BUT DESPITE Allen's missteps, there appeared to be little backlash state-wide Tuesday at the polling places.
On the campaign trail, Allen promised to continue supporting President Bush in the Iraq war and to promote math, science and engineering among women and minorities to ensure the nation's international competitiveness.
Allen also campaigned strongly in favor of the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, which was approved .
"Our representative democracy is most under attack from these activist judges," said Allen.
For his part, Webb promised to be an independent voice in the Senate, advocating for a new direction for the Iraq war and for the nation's economic policies.
Webb, whose son is a Marine stationed in Iraq, tapped into anger among Democrats over the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war and war on terrorism. During the campaign, Webb wore his son's used combat boots and traveled around the state in a camouflage Jeep driven by an old Marine buddy.
Webb sought to link Allen with President Bush, pointing out that the Senator votes with Bush at least 96 percent of the time.