In a sign of increasing national attention on the Virginia Senate race, Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama appeared in Market Square last week to endorse Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb. Polls show that the fall campaign for the Virginia Senate seat has tightened since Republican incumbent Sen. George Allen hurled a slur at an American of Indian ancestry during an Aug. 11 campaign rally in Breaks, Va. Since then, he has denied charges that he used racial epithets directed at blacks during his college days at the University of Virginia. The controversy over Allen’s character has given the Webb campaign a new life — one that the junior senator from Illinois wanted to capitalize in a rare Alexandria appearance last week.
“I’m here for one primary reason,” Obama said. “I need some help in the Senate.”
Obama appeared at the rally amid the thumping strains of Tom Petty’s 1989 hit song “I Won’t Back Down.” He is often referred to as a “rock star” politician, and the frenzied reception he received in Market Square certainly validated this perception. In a brief speech, Obama quoted a March interview with former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in Time Magazine in which the retired politician said that the Democrats' campaign slogan should be “had enough?”
“You won’t normally hear me quote Newt Gingrich,” Obama said. “But I think he was on to something.”
Obama used Gingrich’s formulation as a recurring theme, asking the audience if they have had enough of Republican policies on oil, energy and the use of terrorism as a political weapon during election seasons. He said that the Allen campaign has unfairly attacked Webb because of his career as a professional author.
“We have someone who has the sophistication to write some best-selling novels,” Obama said. “We like our warriors to be scholars and intellectuals as well.”
OBAMA WORKED the crowd with a call-and-response style buildup, eventually introducing the Democratic Senate candidate for Virginia. The distinction between the public speaking style of the two men was obvious as Webb grabbed the microphone and launched into an understated stump speech. He said he was taken aback at Allen’s repeated attacks on his prolific career as an author — one that includes fiction and nonfiction books on the Vietnam War and the history of Scots-Irish heritage in America.
“I’m a believer in words,” Webb said. “And so I was surprised to find that this would be something that my opponent would criticize.”
Webb said that he was also surprised that he would have to spend so much time fundraising. Campaign finance disclosure forms indicate that while Allen has raised more than $12 million, Webb’s fundraising totals have yet to top $2 million. The dramatic disparity in cash on hand is sure to be an issue in the final weeks of the campaign, when both campaigns will be airing expensive television commercials in selected markets across Virginia.
“They’ve got more money,” Webb said. “But they can’t buy what I see in people’s faces.”
Webb disparaged what he called “Karl Rove’s slash-and-burn politics,” adding that he would do more to help the middle class than Allen. He cited criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq from military leaders such as Colin Powell and Anthony Zinni.
“These are not people seeking to settle a score,” Webb said. “And neither am I.”
As the rally drew to a close, Webb said that Northern Virginia could be a decisive force in the election. Although he did not predict a victory, he did make a promise about a potential victory party.
“Anyone who knows me knows that it will have beer!” he said.
AFTER THE RALLY, Democrats mingled in Market Square and speculated about the possibility of a Webb victory over the popular Republican incumbent. Allen’s recently revealed Jewish ancestry was a topic of conversation for many — with his comments in a recent Fairfax County debate emerging as another potential gaffe. In a Sept. 18 televised debate, WUSA reporter Peggy Fox asked Allen if his forbears included Jews — and, if so, “at which point Jewish identity might have ended?”
“He didn’t answer the question,” said Sharron Caplan, a Jewish voter who said that she was disappointed in how Allen handled the situation. “It’s something he should be proud of. But he seemed to be ashamed of it.”
The day after the debate, the Allen campaign released a statement that sought to answer the question he avoided in the debate.
“I was raised as a Christian and my mother was raised as a Christian,” Allen wrote in the Sept. 19 press release. “And I embrace and take great pride in every aspect of my diverse heritage, including my Lumbroso family line’s Jewish heritage, which I learned about from a recent magazine article and my mother confirmed.”
But Caplan was not persuaded. She said that if he was proud of his heritage, he would have explained these things when asked about them by Fox instead of releasing a statement the following day.
“Too little too late,” she said. “I don’t buy it.”