Years after 'macaca moment,' Webb urged to worry about Allen return

Virginia Republicans have paved the way for former Sen. George Allen's (R-Va.) comeback in 2012, but a rematch of one of 2006's nastiest Senate contests is still far from a forgone conclusion.

The speculation about Allen’s return has put the pressure on Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who some Democrats think is ambivalent about another run in 2012.

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Allen unexpectedly lost a tight race to Webb in 2006, thanks in part to what has become known as his "macaca moment." Allen was caught on tape aiming the epithet at a Democratic tracker who was filming one of Allen's campaign events.

Still, Allen remains one of the state's most popular Republicans, and a recent poll from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling showed him to be the runaway favorite among Virginia Republicans.

In a statement, Webb spokesman Will Jenkins said the senator "will address his intentions regarding the 2012 election cycle after giving the matter proper thought and consideration," but offered no timetable for a decision.

That's not good enough for one of the most senior Democratic strategists in the state, who said Democrats risk giving Republicans a major leg up unless Webb declares his intentions and gets serious about 2012 quickly.

"If Webb doesn't get off his butt and start acting like he wants the job, we're in trouble," said the strategist, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about frustrations with Webb. "He's probably our best bet, but he isn't doing anything he needs to do."

The strategist said Webb still has the right profile for a statewide Democrat in Virginia but that his posturing is reminiscent of former Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) who "liked the work in the Senate, but hated the politics of it all."

Robb lost his seat to Allen in 2000.

"[Webb] rarely travels south of the Occoquan," the Democrat said. "And you have to remember, there are few people in Virginia that campaign better than George Allen."

While Webb's office declined comment on any Democratic criticism of the senator, a source close to Webb pointed out that he campaigned for Democrats across the state in 2010, appearing with every Democratic member of the state's congressional delegation.

Democratic strategist Steve Jarding, a senior adviser to Webb in 2006, warned people not to read too much into Webb's seeming reluctance to hit the fundraising circuit and charm Democratic insiders and activists.

"I understand when people say they wish he would change," Jarding said. "In '06, he was never one who wanted to go the receptions and do the glad-handing. It's just not his style. But that's part of his appeal."

Jarding said he's confident that Webb could raise the money, even if he makes a late decision on reelection.

"If you want him to become the consummate politician, you'll be disappointed," he said. "I just don't think he has it in him."

Despite the lack of a clear signal from Webb regarding his intentions, observers said it would come as no surprise if the former Navy Secretary makes a decision much later than many Democrats would like.

One strategist said criticism from either side, especially from Republicans who have begun tying Webb to President Obama, could have the effect of pushing the sometimes headstrong senator back into the race even if he's leaning against it.

If Webb were to decline a 2012 run, an open-seat contest would almost certainly favor the GOP with Allen as the Republican frontrunner. Democrats would likely embark on an intensive effort to convince former Virginia governor and current Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Kaine to jump into the race, something several Democrats privately indicated he does not want to do.

Another Democratic option could be Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), who lost a close race for reelection this year but is known as a dogged campaigner. Perriello kept his race relatively close in 2010 despite his conservative-leaning district and a full embrace of Obama.

While Republicans think Allen is hungry for a rematch with Webb, not all are convinced the former senator will have a clear run at the GOP nomination despite the party’s decision to hold a primary instead of a nominating convention to select its 2012 Senate nominee.

The decision was widely seen as a sign of support for Allen, whose high name recognition and strong fundraising ability puts him miles ahead of just about any other rumored Republican contender.

A convention process, which the party used in both 2008 and 2009, would offer a lesser-known or more staunchly conservative candidate greater ability to make a run at Allen by piecing together enough support among party insiders to capture the nomination.

Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said the decision to hold a primary helps Allen initially, but it's no slam dunk.

"There are a lot of variables to this thing," said Davis, who decided to forgo a Senate bid in 2008 after party insiders decided against holding a primary. Former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R-Va.) became the nominee and lost badly to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

"Initially, it definitely helps Allen," Davis said, noting that it immediately discourages some long-shot candidates from even waging a bid. "But a year is an eternity in politics and this thing hasn't even started to develop yet."

The former congressman said he isn't convinced a primary completely inoculates Allen against a challenge from his right, which Davis said could pave the way for another candidate "with a strong regional base of support" to emerge as a competitor.

Asked who he had in mind, Davis wouldn't say, but he wouldn't rule out jumping into the race himself.

"I'm not thinking about it right now," said Davis. "But as I said, a year's a long time."

One Republican strategist put the chances of Davis running in 2012 as "about as likely as the sun setting in the middle of the day in August," but said it's far from implausible that a more conservative candidate gives Allen trouble in a primary.

"I didn't think I'd ever see the day when someone could say 'George Allen's just not conservative enough,' " the strategist said. "It's just amazing how far the pendulum has swung."

At least one rumored Senate hopeful who argued in favor of a party convention was Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart, who stands little chance in a primary against a candidate like Allen. Virginia Delegate Bob Marshall, who boasts solid backing from conservatives, is a rumored contender as well.

The one conservative who could give Allen the toughest time in a primary is state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who has made national headlines by helping lead the charge on the state level against implementation of the healthcare law.

Forty-six percent of state Republicans picked Allen, while his potential competitors weren't even close. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who no one thinks is considering a Senate bid, came in second with 18 percent.

Cantor was followed by Cuccinelli at 16 percent, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Davis at 4 percent, and Marshall at just 2 percent.