Campaign '06: Down to the Wire in Virginia

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If you thought the Virginia Senate race couldn't possibly get any weirder, you were wrong. A University of Virginia law student and liberal blogger named Mike Stark showed up Tuesday at a Charlottesville event for George Allen, the Republican incumbent in a tight race for reelection, and started shouting questions about whether Allen spit on his first wife, a charge that has appeared on Internet blogs but is totally unproven. Allen campaign officials grabbed the man, knocked him to the ground and dragged him out of the event, leading Stark — who aides to Democratic challenger Jim Webb say has no affiliation with the campaign — to e-mail dozens of Washington reporters about the incident and threaten to sue Allen campaign officials.
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Allen "could have ignored my questions," he wrote in the e-mail. "Instead he and his thugs chose violence." Allen's spokesman, Dan Allen (no relation) said Stark pushed him, inciting the incident, and noted that Stark is a liberal blogger who had shouted questions at a previous event for Senator Allen.

The altercation was only the latest dustup in what has become both the ugliest, and perhaps most critical, Senate contest in the country. This race was supposed to be a debate about one of the defining issues of the campaign, Iraq — between Allen, a strong defender of the war and once potential 2008 G.O.P. presidential nominee, and Webb, the former Navy secretary who became a Democrat in part because of his objections to the war. The race, which is now effectively tied after Allen had been leading slightly, could determine which party controls the Senate next year.

Instead, it's been about Allen's use of the derogatory term "macaca" to describe a South Asian Webb supporter who attended an Allen campaign event; his alleged use of racial slurs in the 1970s; the Jewish roots of his mother; and "a horny woman's dream," the term Webb used to describe the dorms at the U.S Naval Academy in a 1979 article arguing against allowing women into combat. And lately it has degenerated further, if that's possible, into nasty charges about passionate prose and alleged arrests. Last week Republicans started attacking the war novels Webb has written, suggesting the sexual scenes they depict are insulting to women and show that Webb is sexist. Democrats, meanwhile, have been questioning why Allen won't release records of his divorce or his application to the Virginia Bar, which they suggest (without citing any evidence) might reveal he was arrested in the 1970's for an assault. Allen aides say the accusations are baseless, and that the only trouble he had with the law at the time concerned unpaid parking tickets.

It can only get duller from here. After all the dirt that has been thrown around, both candidates are trying to get voters to focus on the positive parts of their biographies. Allen started running an ad talking about his service as both governor and senator in the state and his support for lower taxes, while new Webb spots talk about his war service and his support of increased funding for health care. One of the Democratic Party's brightest stars, Barack Obama, is campaigning for Webb this week; so is actor Michael J. Fox, who is supporting Democratic candidates in key races who back expanding stem cell research. Allen will be joined on the trail by a popular G.O.P. Senator, South Dakota's John Thune, and longtime Virginia Republican Senator John Warner, who is very popular in the state.

Ultimately, however, the race may not come down to all these attacks or endorsements, but instead to what will likely determine the results in all of the closest contests around the country: turnout. What has helped Democrats win the past two governor's races in this traditionally Republican state has been changing demographics. Sixty percent of the state's growth since 2000 has come from the Northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington — areas that are heavily Democratic. In 2005, Democrat Tim Kaine easily won the governor's race in Virginia; though he didn't perform as well in rural areas as outgoing Democratic governor Mark Warner did in 2001, he compensated by running very well in Northern Virginia.

Both Allen and Webb need to get major turnout here. Webb hopes to accumulate enough votes to make up for a deficit in the southern and more conservative parts of the state, while Allen needs to hold down his margin of defeat in the north while getting the bulk of voters in the southern part of the state. Whoever wins can only hope the Senate turns out to be a lot less colorful.