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Sen. George Allen: Losing is like macaca

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Sen. George Allen is having a worse August than the Boston Red Sox, the Washington Nationals, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, Joe Lieberman, Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, Dell Computer, Snakes on an Airplane and Pluto.

Like his late father, the pathologically competitive Washington Redskins football coach (the current Redskins aren't having such a great August either), the Virginia Republican must be contemplating his father's famous dictum that "losing is like death" as he runs for a second term that is widely assumed as a prelude to running for president in 2008.

Allen stepped into a big pile of what former President Bush referred to as "caca" when he let loose with what is considered an ethnic slur against a campaign worker for his Democratic opponent James Webb. Allen spotted S. R. Sidarth, a 20-year-od student of Indian descent who was birddogging him for Webb's campaign, at a campaign rally in southern Virginia on Aug. 10 , and declared:

"This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great. We're going to places all over Virginia, and he's having it on film and its great to have you here and you show it to your opponent because he's never been there and probably will never come." Adding insult to injury while seeking a laugh from his mostly-white audience, he said, "Let's give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."

Siddarth, a fourth-year University of Virginia student, was video taping the event and Webb's campaign posted it on the Internet, quickly transforming Allen's use of the word macaca, a long-tailed Asian monkey, into an 800-pound gorilla. On Wednesday, after a week of insisting that he meant no harm and that 1) he didn't know what macaca meant, and 2) was referring to Sidarth's mohawk haircut, a contrite Allen called Sidarth to apologize.

It was only another in a series of abject apologies Allen has offered, the latest of which was delivered to conservative talk show host and Republican mouthpiece Sean Hannity a day earlier. "I take full responsibility," Allen said. "I'm not offering any excuses because I said it, and no one else said it. It's a mistake. I apologize, and from heart, I'm very, very sorry for it."

We have to take Allen's word for it, and I do, as I know him to be a decent and likeable person who I've often said has a lot of Ronald Reagan's "aw shucks" appeal. In fact, I've been telling anyone who will listen that Democrats should not underestimate him, as they underestimated Reagan, and that he could be a formidable presidential candidate.

But there's an ugly undercurrent to the macaca embroglio, for which Allen also has to be held responsible, as his campaign handlers attempted to deflect blame for Allen's gaffe on the news media and on "scurrilous attacks by our opponent and his leftist' allies." Campaign manager Dick Wadhams, obviously reading from Karl Rove's playbook, accused the media of creating a "feeding frenzy" and called it a "desparate attempt to revive" Webb's "fast-sinking" campaign, even as Allen and Webb supporters shouted at each other as President Bush arrived at a private fundraiser not far from George Washington's home in Alexandria, Va., Wednesday night.

But Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report and probably the best non-partisan professional political analyst in the business, put his finger on the Allen campaign's breathtakingly cynical strategy to convince Old Dominion voters that Allen is really, really sorry for what he said, while at the same time energizing his conservative base by attacking liberals and the media.

"They need a better foil," Cook told the Washington Post. "They need to shift this into 'We're the persecuted." It was a very, very calculated move."

Siddarth, who has suddenly become the most famous campaign aide in the country, said Allen told him his apology was "from his heart," But Siddarth apparently was unconvinced. Asked why it had taken him so long to apologize, Siddarth said Allen told him he was waiting to apologize in person the next them he saw Siddarth on the campaign trail.

Siddarth credited Allen with doing "the right thing," but declined to say whether he thought Allen was sincere, maybe because he's heard about Allen's penchant for signaling his loyalty to the Confederacy while governor of Virginia.

On such unpredictable and unexpected events, political careers often turn. Think of Thomas Dewey thoughtlessly criticizing an engineer who caused his train to pull out prematurely from a campaign stop in 1948, or Barry Goldwater's "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" comment in 1964, or Gerald Ford's assurance in 1976 that the Soviets didn't dominate Eastern Europe, or John Kerry's tortured effort in 2004 to explain his vote for invading Iraq.

Only time will tell whether Allen's macaca controversy is such a political tipping point. But clearly, he has been wounded, not only in his Senate race but in his White House ambitions as well.

As Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta and a specialist in presidential and congressional races, told Forbes magazine, "Clearly this has damaged his presidential aspirations. It just raises questions about his judgment and how sincere he is in how he deals with these kinds of issues."

Looks like George Allen needs to diagram some new plays, as his father did, to guard against the blitz. Maybe he could even take the sting out of his racially insensitive remark by urging his father's old team to get rid of their racially offensive nickname.