RICHMOND, Va.—On this last day of the Virginia Senate race, everyone is talking about a big “momentum shift.” It seems that around the country, voters are having 11th-hour doubts about their Democratic candidates, and the polls are starting to reflect that uncertainty. Here, too, it feels like there has been a slight shift in momentum over the weekend, but today’s Webb and Allen events almost seem orchestrated to highlight the different energies.
Partly it’s the contrast in settings. James Webb speaks from a huge outdoor stage at Virginia Commonwealth University this afternoon. Hundreds are in attendance, although, as college students are wont—there is a good deal of cell-phoning and hair-twirling and flirtation with the classmates as he speaks. George Allen is at the Richmond airport tonight, in a room too small to contain his supporters. They are focused and purposeful, even the elderly in their bright blue “Allen” caps look ready to kick some ass. Webb’s event starts late, as all his events seem to. Allen’s begins on time. Webb’s event has a handful of reporters and seemingly fewer security folk. Allen’s has four cable-news trucks and numerous security guards ready to hurl his interlocutors to the floor at any moment.
Both candidates claim the other has run the negative ads. Each claims the other seeks to tax the working man. Each says he is running ahead in the polls. Both crowds go wild. And each man is surrounded by whatever the state-politics-nerd equivalent of rock stars would be. Webb’s posse includes former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and current Gov. Tim Kaine. Allen’s includes Sen. John Warner, R-Va.
There is an intensity to the Allen supporters that is missing from Webb’s. Each and every car in the parking lot has an Allen bumper sticker. His backers cheer after each sentence and turn even his throwaway lines into call-and-response chants. Webb is, as he was last week, wooden; one of those people who somehow manages to be more lifelike in televised debates than he is in person. But Webb has let go of last week’s bruised auteur pose and scrambled back to policy geek. It’s a better fit. Following Warner and Kaine doesn’t help him. Kaine is as peppy as Webb is dour. Webb briefly lays out his three themes for the campaign: the war; the well-being of middle-class Americans; the abuse of power by the president.
This is a speech that would be more electrifying were it to come from my letter carrier. And Webb appears to grind it out at gunpoint. But it doesn’t matter. As he explains that the White House is going to have a big problem come Wednesday, the crowd erupts.
At the Allen event, the crowd erupts before he even takes the stage. The state’s lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, opens with the de rigueur attack on “John Kerry, Teddy Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton.” He recycles the Kerry flip-flop trope by characterizing Jim Webb as a “grab bag” and asserts that “no one knows where he stands.” Bolling assaults “Massachusetts values and Vermont values.” It’s Grimm Brothers on Ice tonight, in which everyone and everything is evil and out to destroy Virginia: Hillary, the “grab bag,” and the Vermonters will steal in during the night and trash the state. That’s what those Northerners are all about.
George Allen offers variations on this theme. He ignores his years in the Senate and opts to focus on his prior record as Virginia’s governor. If there is a war being fought on his watch, it’s a distraction: The real problem for the voters isn’t Iraq, which he barely acknowledges. It’s “John Kerry.” It’s “Hillary Clinton.” It’s “Bill Clinton.” Is he suggesting that Bill Clinton is worse for America than the war in Iraq? I think so. And then, of course, the biggest problem facing this country is—wait for it—the “activist judges” who permit attacks on the Boy Scouts and the stealing of our land by eminent domain. They are the true villains. They want to “amend the bill of rights by judicial decree.” They are trying to “take away our rights and our values.”
Allen, who once famously advocated beating Democrats by “knocking their soft teeth down their whining throats,” offers little in the way of inspiration today; it’s just protracted campaign grousing. He takes responsibility for not a single thing that he and his colleagues have done in the Senate; he stands behind no coherent policy idea, except for some half-formed theory of a national assault by Ted Kennedy and his torch-wielding activist judiciary.
Maybe this old rant will get out the vote for Allen again tomorrow. Maybe Americans are genuinely more afraid of the Massachusetts Supreme Court than they are of a war that won’t end. But given a choice between a Jim Webb poised to address a real war and a George Allen who’s involved in some odd ninja smackdown with a bug-eyed caricature of Hillary Clinton, this hardly even seems like a choice. This country faces terribly serious problems right now: a corrupt Congress, an economy that has been rapidly annihilated, and a war that everyone wants never to have begun. If these boring, serious, real issues worry you more than judges and the Kennedy clan, I’d opt for the boring, serious real guy who at least plans to deal with them.