ARLINGTON, Va. -- With Republican control of Congress in jeopardy, a 6-foot-3-inch, tobacco- dipping Virginian in cowboy boots could be all that's standing in the way of a Democratic takeover on Capitol Hill.
Republican Sen. George Allen, an affable conservative whose favorite word is "heck," is a proud defender of one of the seats Democrats would most like to win this fall. To keep it, Allen is doing everything he can to repel a tide that seems to be running the Democrats' way.
Across the nation, "the election is about change versus the status quo," said Stu Rothenberg, who tracks congressional contests for his independent newsletter. "I really think the mood is anti-Republican."
Like some other analysts, he predicts Democrats will capture a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since the 1992 election. In the Senate, he sees Democrats picking up four, and possibly five, seats. For the pivotal sixth seat they would need to gain control, Virginia might offer the best shot, he says, though Arizona is another possibility.
With an unpopular war, high gas prices and the government's failure to cope with Hurricane Katrina still fresh in many voters' minds, Republicans knew that 2006 would be tough. National polls reflect deepening voter disapproval over the performance of the Republican-led Congress and the downward path things seem to be headed on in the country.
President Bush's slumping popularity is a further sign of a classic "sixth-year curse" election - the one in the middle of a president's second term, when the party in power typically suffers losses. Heading into this weekend's traditional campaign kickoff, politicians and analysts agreed that Democrats are well-positioned to make gains.
Still to be decided: just how sweeping those changes might be. If a huge, pro-Democratic wave builds, Senate races would be more likely than House contests to be influenced by a national trend, history has shown.
It was Virginia, six years ago, that did as much as any state to prevent a Democratic takeover of the Senate. Former Governor Allen unseated incumbent Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb and kept Republicans in charge by the slenderest of margins - Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote.
This year, Virginia is a perfect place to measure the overarching themes of the national election: the war in Iraq and the question of whether voters will send a message of disapproval over Bush's leadership. Besides a Senate seat, presidential ambitions are also on the line.
Allen, the 54-year-old son of the late Washington Redskins coach, has spent part of the year pursuing his other campaign, for the White House in 2008. Reflecting the senator's potential appeal to his party's conservative base, Richard Lowry, editor of National Review magazine, wrote last fall that "George Allen has perhaps a better chance of winning the nomination than any other Republican."
Allen's Democratic challenger, James Webb, has a compelling story of his own. A Marine war hero and a writer by trade - his 1978 best-seller, Fields of Fire, is considered one of the best Vietnam novels - Webb served four years in the Reagan administration, including 11 stormy months as Navy secretary.
His early opposition to invading Iraq has driven his candidacy and made the Virginia election a referendum on the war. Anti-war bloggers led the push for Webb, 60, to change parties and launch his first run for office against Allen, whom he had endorsed with considerable fanfare in 2000.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, seeing Webb as the Democrats' best hope to win Virginia, abandoned its usual neutrality and backed the green recruit over a longtime party activist in the primary. The theory: As a former Republican, military man (Allen didn't serve) and lifelong proponent of gun owners' rights, Webb could appeal to the moderate-to-conservative independents and rural voters who often decide elections.
Prominent Washington Democrats began crossing the Potomac to politick with Webb. Leading the charge was the 2004 presidential nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, whose hand Webb had refused to shake for 20 years because of Kerry's lead role with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. (Webb remains a fierce defender of that war.)
Privately, Republican and Democratic politicians say Webb is a decided underdog and trails Allen by about 10 percentage points. At the same time, they agree the race has become more competitive.
"Six months ago, we would have said Virginia was a long shot," New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who heads the Democratic campaign committee, said last week. "Now, we think it's a close contest."
Webb is attacking Allen's near-perfect record of support for Bush's policies in the Senate. "When two people agree with each other 97 percent of the time, one of them doesn't need a job," Webb says, borrowing a line that another Democratic challenger, Bob Casey Jr., is deploying against one of the Republicans' most endangered incumbents, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
But it was self-inflicted damage by Allen that suddenly made the Virginia race worth watching.
Allen, an experienced campaigner who served a term as governor in the 1990s, used an obscure racial slur, "Macaca," to mock a Webb volunteer who was taping Allen's remarks at a campaign stop in rural southwest Virginia three weeks ago. The target of Allen's jibe was a strapping, dark-skinned 20-year-old named S.R. Sidarth, a college student of Indian descent who, unbeknownst to Allen, was born and raised in Virginia and attends Allen's alma mater, the University of Virginia.
To laughter from his white supporters, a grinning Allen pointed his finger at the lens of Sidarth's camera and identified the interloper as a Webb backer. "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia," Allen quipped. The senator, whose youthful infatuation with symbols of the Confederacy had earlier raised questions about his sensitivity on racial matters, eventually apologized to Sidarth. But the incident hurt Allen, especially after the Webb campaign posted it on YouTube, the video-sharing site, where it has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
Allen was "a fairly secure incumbent." Now he's "somewhat struggling," said William Connelly, a Washington and Lee University political scientist, who added that "the real cost" has been to Allen's presidential aspirations.
Like other Republican candidates, Allen is attempting to steer voter attention toward the larger war on terrorism and away from the conflict in Iraq, a strategy Democrats claim won't work as well as it did in 2002 and 2004. At the same time, Allen isn't backing off his support for the Iraq war, arguing that the United States can't afford to "tuck tail and run and surrender."
Allen says he is "proud of the president," who is "always welcome in Virginia," which Bush carried easily in 2000 and 2004. But Bush's poll ratings in the state have dropped over the past two years, and when he took a helicopter to Northern Virginia recently to raise money for Allen's campaign, the event was closed to the press and the public.
On issues such as port security and immigration, Allen has put some distance between himself and the administration. Last week, the senator campaigned with former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in Norfolk, home to world's largest U.S. naval station (the state's estimated 1 million active-duty service members, retired veterans and their families are a prime target for both candidates).
Allen's campaign ads have emphasized his work as governor and on voter-friendly issues such as education, health research and keeping Internet taxes low. Webb, who is being heavily outspent, is the only major Senate candidate in the country yet to air a commercial; an online ad posted by his campaign links Allen to U.S. failures in Iraq, the Katrina debacle and high energy prices.
Despite their sharp differences over going to war against Saddam Hussein, the candidates aren't as far apart on the question of what comes next. Neither favors an immediate pullout, though Webb says U.S. forces could be out in two years. He warns against a permanent occupation of Iraq and says "there never will be full stability in that region until American combat forces leave."
Allen, implying that a long-term presence in Iraq is inevitable, has noted that U.S. forces are stationed in nearby Kuwait and other bases across the globe. "Heck, we even have one still in Cuba from the Spanish-American War," he said in their only debate thus far.
Webb argues, along with Democratic candidates around the country, that occupying Iraq has "our military locked down in a civil war" and hurts the wider struggle against terrorism by diverting resources that could be better used elsewhere.
Democratic-tilting Northern Virginia, home to many federal workers and a key to Democratic victories in the state's last two governor's races, will be a major battleground in the Senate contest. Fast growth in the sprawling suburban region, which has added 400,000 new residents since 2000, presents a challenge for Allen, who is running, to a considerable degree, on his years as a popular governor, which ended almost a decade ago.
"You all know me," Allen likes to tell voters. Virginians "know what I stand for" and "know my record of performance." The senator is counting on that reservoir of good will, his advisers say, to protect him if anti-Republican fever spreads this fall.