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Words Test Loyalties of Va. Voters

Sen. Allen's lead over Democratic rival shrinks amid charges of racial insensitivity.

October 03, 2006|Faye Fiore and Mima Mohammed | Times Staff Writers

LEESBURG, Va. — If Republican Sen. George Allen survives the charges of racial insensitivity that have recently rocked his reelection campaign, it will be thanks to voters like Peter Nicholson, a 42-year-old wine consultant in this historic town on the edge of a Civil War battlefield.

"What if he is a closet racist, so what? I'm interested in what they are going to do for Virginia," Nicholson, a Republican, said amid the towering stacks at the wine store where he works.

If Allen loses, it will be due to voters like Fabian Saeidi, the 59-year-old owner of a bakery a few doors away. Saeidi is also a Republican and has voted for Allen at least once. But not this time.

"Allen is a racist man, a very bad man," Saeidi said as he manned the register at his cozy cafe. "There is no way I am voting for him."

Whatever the outcome Nov. 7, there is no question Allen is in a much tougher race than almost anyone expected, largely because of remarks that many say smacked of racial insensitivity. His double-digit lead over Democrat Jim Webb, a political newcomer, melted after he referred to his opponent's dark-skinned campaign worker as "macaca" during an August rally.

Things grew worse as Allen awkwardly wrestled in public with new information that his grandfather was Jewish, and again last week when several former college classmates stepped forward to accuse him of using an anti-black slur. One said Allen had stuffed the severed head of a deer into the mailbox of an African American family. Allen dismissed the allegations as "ludicrously false" and produced several witnesses to vouch for him.

Another voice from his past surfaced Thursday, charging that Allen repeatedly used a racial slur when referring to blacks while on the sidelines of a rugby pitch in the late 1970s.

Patricia Waring, 75, then the wife of a University of Virginia rugby coach, said she heard Allen use the epithet while she sat on the sidelines of a match. Allen had graduated but had come back to play unofficially.

"He was showing off, using the n-word quite lavishly. He said it more than once, probably three or four times in this diatribe," said Waring, who now lives in Maryland, where she is a Democratic Party volunteer. "I got out of the bleacher and I said, 'Hi, kid. I'm the coach's wife, and it would be awfully nice if you didn't talk that way.'

"He was rude and told me to buzz off or something."

Waring said she did not know who the young man was until she asked another player to identify him and learned it was George Allen. That player was Neal Brendel, who was attending the University of Virginia law school and went on to become a professional rugby player. He told MSNBC's "Hardball" that he did not remember the incident.

Dick Wadhams, Allen's campaign manager, said of Waring's charge: "It's false. Absolutely untrue."

The issue of race has been a complicated one for Virginia, which held the capital of the Confederacy and was the first state to elect an African American governor, in 1989.

Now, voters are grappling with the subject in a campaign that was supposed to be a cinch for Allen, whose trademark cowboy boots and tobacco chaw seemed to appeal not only to Virginia voters but to a broader pool of conservatives as he positioned himself for the 2008 GOP presidential campaign.

His political future will be decided in places like Leesburg, in the center of wealthy and fast-growing Loudoun County, where an influx of more moderate voters is nibbling at the edges of a Republican stronghold. Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine won the county in 2005, the latest sign that a once solidly red state may be more in league with the mid-Atlantic than the Old South.

In the quaint Leesburg Restaurant one recent morning, locals seated at a lunch counter were digesting more than the bacon and eggs.

News of the alleged racial slurs was turning the eyes of the nation on a state that has all but shed its segregated past, dredging up stereotypes and stirring emotions.

But a lot of voters here were more concerned with growth, gridlock and taxes.

"The roads stink," Mike Craig, 58, the owner of Leesburg Hobbies & Collectibles, said over his steaming cup of coffee. The subject of potholes had sparked his outrage more than whatever words Allen might have used as a younger man.

"There are ways to use the word that are not disparaging toward a race.... What if you make a lawyer joke? Does that mean you think all lawyers are bad?" he asked.

Many Allen supporters suspect that the talk of slurs and the deer's head were the work of a mean-spirited campaign and a biased media. But even if the allegations were true, many felt forgiving.

"Ninety-eight percent of all adults in this country have used that word at least once in their lifetime, including myself," Gary Keeler, 71, declared from a rocker on the front porch of a children's store that he and his wife own. "Politics is so dirty now."

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