HARRISONBURG, Va. – Republican Sen. George Allen had hoped for an easy slide to re-election and, from there, a launching pad to the presidency.
So far, it hasn't worked out that way.
A loyal foot solider for President Bush, the Virginia lawmaker faces a surprisingly tough re-election campaign that is keeping him pinned down in his state while other Republican presidential hopefuls traverse Iowa, New Hampshire and other important places in the 2008 nomination fight.
Just as worrisome, the Senate campaign has already dredged up a few unpleasant issues — both personal and political — that could shadow his plans for 2008.
Virginia Democrats on June 13 will choose Allen's opponent — either former Reagan administration Navy Secretary James H. Webb or businessman Harris Miller. Many national party leaders say Webb, a Republican-turned-Democrat and best-selling author, is their best hope for taking the seat.
Allen accuses unnamed Democratic forces of running a smear campaign against him.
"I have no question that national Democrats are after me," the former Virginia governor said in an interview.
Allen spoke at a picnic table at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds. A pink sky framed the Shenandoah Mountains and cast him in a soft light. He had just raised $25,000 at a campaign event — shaking hands, slapping backs, singing country music and outlining a hardline conservative agenda.
The event highlighted his strength as a politician, a good-ol'-boy likability that may wear well in places such as Iowa where retail politics still matters. It took place beneath a pavilion filled with GOP donors and the aroma of beef and manure.
"This is my kinda place!" Allen shouted. He picked thin slices of beef from the buffet tray, tilted his head back and dangled the meat above his mouth before dropping it in.
"My kinda place!"
An aide tossed him a football. The football gets tossed at every Allen event — one ritual among many that raises the question of whether his country-boy shtick is affected as it is effective.
This crowd loves it.
"Hail the next president," yelled John Root, a local farmer.
When the band asked him to join, Allen said he only sings in public when, "I've had two beers — and the audience has had four."
The joke is such a hit he repeated it a few minutes later.
Now he's spitting mad — literally.
Pinching his lower lip between two fingers, Allen yanks it down to his chin and smears a gooey dab of smokeless tobacco along his gums. He is answering questions about an article in The New Republic magazine that details his past affinity with symbols of the bygone South.
Allen used to keep a Confederate flag in his living room, a noose in his law office and a picture of Confederate troops in his governor's office.
He said he knows better now.
"I understand how ..." He paused briefly and starts again. "People over the years ..." Another pause. "I've grown."
The Confederate flag is not just a symbol of regional pride, Allen said. "For many people, it represents segregation or represents racism and I recognize that."
But for all his folksy, down-home pretense, Allen has no Dixie roots.
His father, also named George Allen, was a famed football coach who kept his family on the move. The senator was born in California, lived in the Chicago suburbs for eight years, returned to California for high school and attended college in Virginia after his father became head coach of the Washington Redskins.
In his high school yearbook photo, Allen is wearing a Confederate flag pin. He said he cannot remember why, but suspects the pin was part of a nonconformist phase. He said a pal wore one, too.
"We probably did it for some sort of — I don't know what you call it — for the fun of it," Allen said, spitting tobacco juice between his cowboy boots. "It wasn't any major statement."
In the magazine article, classmates recalled Allen driving California's streets in a red Mustang with a Confederate plate. Some spoke of a graffiti-spraying incident and said it was racially tinged. Allen said he was suspended for the prank aimed at an opposing basketball team but denied writing anything racial.
In college, he embraced his new Southern life — playing country music, wearing cowboy boots, backing Richard Nixon and once shooting a squirrel on campus. He skinned it, ate it and hung the pelt on his wall, according to The New Republic.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia classmate who is now a political scientist at the school, said voters outside Virginia will not appreciate the senator's Southern stylings.
"They're going to find Allen in some ways socially unacceptable, not just politically unacceptable," Sabato said.
For every example of open-mindedness Allen can cite — such as his efforts as a senator to get more money for black colleges — Democrats can cite such things as the proclamation he signed as governor to declare a Confederate History and Heritage Month.
It praised the South's "four-year struggle for independence" and made no mention of slavery.
Then there is his relationship with his sister, Jennifer Allen Richard, who wrote a book, "Fifth Quarter," about growing up the daughter of a football coach. Her eldest brother comes across as a bully who, among other things, cracked her boyfriend on the head with a pool cue.
"George hoped someday to become a dentist," she writes. "George said he saw dentistry as a perfect profession — getting paid to make people suffer."
Reached by phone in Los Angeles, Richard said the pool cue incident was a joke. Allen was simply testing her boyfriend's reflexes.
As for the dentist quote, she said the book was written from the perspective of a young girl surrounded by older brothers and a larger-than-life father. She called it "a novelization of the past."
A part-time journalist and mother of three, Richard said she has a great relationship with her brother. When she got married, Allen filled in for her deceased father and walked her down the aisle.
"He was crying more than anybody," she said.
By most accounts, Allen was a popular one-term governor. He presided over the GOP realignment of Virginia politics and easily won passage of his legislative priorities: abolishing parole, downsizing welfare and imposing education standards. He also evolved politically, entering office as a fierce partisan and leaving a more mellow pragmatist.
He has changed as a senator, too, shifting toward the right on assault weapons and gay rights, drawing charges of flip-flopping from Democrats.
Allen's voting record in the Senate tracks closely with Bush's agenda, but he does not play that up.
"People know me. They don't look at me as a Bush Republican," he said. Allen argued that the distance has nothing to do with Bush's anemic approval ratings, which have Republican candidates everywhere running for cover. And yet, Allen has no problem calling himself a Reagan Republican.
He said he is focused on the fall. But he cannot ignore the future.
"Hello, Mr. President!" shouted a supporter as he grabbed Allen's hand.
"Well," replied the slick Southern charmer, "let's win this one first."
Associated Press Writer Bob Lewis in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
APTV 05-14-06 1230EDT