LEESBURG, Va. -- Sen. George Allen came to Virginia's hunt country in pursuit of votes the other day and wound up getting hounded about his latest campaign embarrassments instead.
Visibly relieved when an aide cut short his news conference at a tree farm, the senator made a beeline for his car, a pack of reporters hot on his heels. They wanted to know about the caught-on-tape manhandling of a heckler by Allen supporters and a conservative columnist's dismissive comments about the "accident-prone" senator, but Allen hopped in the vehicle and slammed the door.
Across the country, Republican prospects in the 2006 elections have dimmed significantly in recent weeks, according to analysts and politicians in both parties. A Democratic takeover of the House seems increasingly possible, while the Republicans' grip on the Senate looks shaky.
Perhaps nowhere has a Republican plunged more drastically than in red-state Virginia, where Democratic challenger Jim Webb, a former Reagan administration official in his first race for elective office, has erased what had been a 10-point Allen lead.
"This is the race that was never supposed to be competitive in the first place," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University. "It was supposed to be an easy ride to re-election for George Allen and the first step toward his inevitable run for president."
Now, it's a statistical dead heat, according to public opinion surveys, and Allen is fighting to save his career.
The change is the result of several factors, including Allen's blunders, opposition to the Iraq war and the unpopularity of President Bush and the Republican-led Congress.
In an election season marked by negative campaigns, Virginia's has been among the ugliest. Character attacks from both sides have overshadowed what was expected to be a referendum on the war in Iraq.
Webb, a highly decorated Vietnam-era Marine who served as secretary of the Navy in the late 1980s, was an early critic of the U.S.-led invasion. Allen, until recently, stood staunchly in support of Bush's Iraq policy, though the senator now says that "progress has been too slow. We can't keep doing things the same way."
Largely obscured by mudslinging from both sides, the Iraq war remains foremost in the minds of many voters, according to opinion polls and random interviews in Loudoun County in Washington's outer suburbs. It is one of the fastest-growing places in the nation and a bellwether for Virginia's changing politics.
Kathy Rutkowski, 53, describes herself as an independent who has become increasingly Democratic in recent years. She's got nothing but praise for the state's senior U.S. senator, Republican John W. Warner, but she's voting for Webb because "I'm very disillusioned with Iraq. It's actually worse than the Vietnam War. I feel there's a need for change."
G.R. Green, 54, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, backed Bush in 2000 but favors Webb because of the war.
"Allen's message of 'stay the course' is not the right way to go," Green said.
Allen's top strategist, Dick Wadhams, said the campaign's internal polling shows the senator in the lead. He acknowledged that the national anti-Republican tide is "a major factor" working against Allen, but dismissed the Democratic campaign as ineffectual.
"The incident in August is what changed the race. It has nothing to do with what Webb has done," Wadhams said.
The incident was Allen's taunting of a dark-skinned Webb volunteer of Indian descent as macaca, which critics called a racist slur. The incident, viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube .com, opened the floodgates for a series of allegations against the senator, including charges by former acquaintances who said that he had used racial epithets as a University of Virginia football player in the 1970s. The allegations reinforced earlier portrayals of Allen as racially insensitive. The senator apologized to the Webb supporter but strongly denied the allegations of racism.
Also knocking Allen off his stride was his reluctant admission of his Jewish heritage (followed immediately by his quip that he still eats ham sandwiches). This week, three Allen supporters tackled a Webb supporter who confronted the senator at a campaign event in Charlottesville. Video of the incident, shot by a local station, was replayed on network television news and around the state.
Allen's unexpected vulnerability has helped Webb's long-shot campaign become competitive financially and forced the national Republican Party to divert millions of dollars into defending a seat that was not expected to be at risk.
But the challenger has faced serious problems of his own, also involving words from the past. Questions about his attitude toward women, stemming in large part from a 1979 magazine article that criticized the presence of female midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, have hurt him with women voters.
Republican attack ads, playing on the notion that Webb harbors antediluvian attitudes toward women, call Webb "right for '06 ... 1806."
Last week, Allen opened a new line of assault over Webb's work as a writer, including his highly regarded Vietnam novel, Fields of Fire. Allen campaign officials highlighted sexually explicit passages in Webb's fiction that they said were demeaning to women, an allegation that Webb angrily rejected as the work of "mean-spirited, simple-minded, power-hungry character assassins."
Webb campaign manager Steve Jarding said internal polls showed the Senate race breaking in Webb's favor shortly after the attack over the novels. He speculated that the charges might have been "the last straw" for undecided voters.
Conservative columnist George F. Will, who described Allen's criticism of Webb's fiction as a "ham-handed grab for women's votes," said the ploy might help Allen win. But, he wrote, Allen's "ragged" re-election drive had "radically reduced" his presidential prospects, emptying his once-flush campaign treasury and possibly knocking him "out of contention" in 2008.
That's a breathtaking comedown for the 54-year-old Virginian, who last winter addressed the presidential banquet at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he won the 2008 presidential straw poll.
In that speech, Allen boasted of his success in helping his party gain four Senate seats as chairman of the national campaign committee in 2004. Next week, he'd be delighted to win one seat -- his own. And with control of the Senate possibly riding on the outcome, the Republicans would be delighted, too.