Allen's ‘macaca’ moment remains close

Virginia Senate candidate George Allen (R) apologized Wednesday to an African-American reporter for asking him, “What position did you play?” in an incident that evoked his infamous “macaca” gaffe.

Democrats seized on the apology. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee blasted out the story in an email with the subject line “Awkward George Allen apology — the first of many.”

The incident renewed debate over whether Allen has learned his lesson since making a costly racial remark during his failed 2006 Senate campaign.

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The exchange began Tuesday, when Craig Melvin, a correspondent for the Washington, D.C., NBC affiliate, tweeted, “For the 2nd time in 5 months, fmr. gov. and sen candidate George Allen asks me, ‘what position did you play?’ I did not a play a sport [sic].”

Allen, a former governor and senator, apologized to Melvin on Twitter.

“@craigmelvin sorry if I offended, ask people a lot if they played sports Grew up in football family found sports banter good way to connect,” Allen tweeted.

Allen found himself in hot water nearly five years ago when he used the racial slur “macaca” to describe an Indian-American volunteer for his opponent, now-Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.).

At the time, Allen said he did not know the word was racially insensitive, but the incident seemed to doom his campaign.

Democrats have harped on the “macaca” moment as one of their early knocks on Allen, who is running for his old seat now that Webb is retiring.

Should he win the GOP primary, Allen will likely face former Democratic National Committee Chairman and ex-Gov. Tim Kaine in what could be one of the most closely watched Senate races of 2012.

In an effort to show his comment was not intended to be malicious, Dan Allen, a senior adviser to George Allen, pointed out that a white news anchor from Richmond, Va., also tweeted that Allen has frequently asked him what position he plays in sports.

“He learned early on that engaging in sports banter is a good way to connect with people,” the adviser said of the candidate, who is the son of former Washington Redskins coach George H. Allen. “He doesn’t single out any single person.”

Even so, some say that Allen needs to alter the way he behaves on the campaign trail to avoid any further “gotcha” moments.

“Since the last time George has run a campaign, things have changed so much, and he is not adapting,” said Ford O’Connell, a Virginia Republican strategist. “Whether it’s social media or online, news travels faster.

“He has to remember that the lights are always on and the knives are always out.”

O’Connell, who is chairman of the CivicForum PAC, said that Allen could benefit from adding outsiders to his close-knit staff.

“In a lot of ways, George has surrounded himself with people he has known over the years,” he said. “He needs to bring in people outside of his original circle … somebody who is looking at it from a different point.

“I think his staff needs to take hold of him.”

But Dan Allen said that the incident shows that Democrats are looking to impugn Allen’s character.

“The Democrats are trying to make hay out of this instead of focusing on the issues,” he said. “They are going to try to play up and distort stuff that goes on.”

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, said that Democrats will likely stick with the issue throughout the campaign, but questioned its effectiveness.

“It’s one of these things that Democrats play up big, but I don’t know that it truly matters,” she said. “I think Democrats are going to look at everything he says and try to spin it as … another example of ‘macaca.’ Who knows if they will succeed?”

Duffy believes that other issues, such as Allen’s record as Virginia governor and whether he can effectively represent the rapidly changing state, would be more effective fodder for Democrats.
“This in and of itself is not going to define this race,” Duffy said of the racial issue.

Despite his comment this week, Duffy said Allen has changed the way he communicates in a hyper-politicized environment.

“I think that he’s thought a lot about the ‘macaca’ thing, and I think he is sorry that he said it and that it could be interpreted the way it was,” she said. “So I think he is pretty careful, but he is going to have to keep being careful.”

O’Connell agreed that Allen needs to keep up his guard.

“George is really presumed guilty before he enters the room, and that’s the burden he is going to have to carry throughout this campaign,” he said. “He not only has to be good, he is going to have to be better than expectations.”

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