United States

PRESIDENT ALLEN?

A little-known senator has been named most likely Republican nominee for 2008

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE August 22 2005
United States

PRESIDENT ALLEN?

A little-known senator has been named most likely Republican nominee for 2008

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE August 22 2005

PRESIDENT ALLEN?

United States

A little-known senator has been named most likely Republican nominee for 2008

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE

OVER A BUFFET LUNCH in a firehall in the northern Shenandoah Valley, the man who may be the next great hope of the Republican party is asking 100 supporters how many of them drive an SUV or a pickup truck. The majority raise their hands. “It’s great to be in America!” exclaims Senator George Allen. He proceeds to scold the “officious nannies up in Washington with their elitist point of view” who want stricter fuel efficiency standards for the vehicles. But as he moves on to chide “activist judges” who “invent the law,” and a United Nations “wracked by fraud and abuse,” he does so politely, more disbelief than nastiness in his voice. And that could make all the difference.

The little-known senator and former governor of Virginia has been anointed the most likely Republican presidential nominee in 2008 by 85 congressional Republicans and influential strategists polled by the insider National'Journal magazine. Clean-cut, darkhaired and youthful at 53, Allen is a business conservative who criss-crosses his state in a recreational vehicle, pestering his staff to drive for blocks to save two cents a gallon on gasoline. He’s also a Presbyterian father of three who takes socially conservative positions without wearing religion on his sleeve. His allure rests on his potential to marry the libertarian and righteous wings of the party. “He is not motivated by gay rights or abortion. He is a fiscal conservative first, and a mainstream slightly-to-the-right-ofright conservative,” parses his former classmate, Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, where Allen earned history and law degrees. He would not be the first choice of evangelicals, says Sabato, “but they’ll accept him.”

Allen is coy about 2008. “It’s very encouraging that people say all that, but I am focused on doing my job,” he told Maclean’s. Visits to the early primary state of New Hampshire, and numerous out-of-state contributions to his US$5-million Senate reelection war chest, suggest otherwise. “Everyone knows he’s running for president,” says

Mike McHugh, president of the Virginia Gun Owners Coalition, who came to the firehall to hear Allen vow to uphold gun rights. “He’s the closest thing to Ronald Reagan since Ronald Reagan,” he adds.

Born in California, Allen has a sunny manner that dips into Virginia folksy. “Thank y’all

ONE man came to hear Allen vow to uphold gun rights. ‘He’s the closest thing to Ronald Reagan since Ronald Reagan.’

for the great grub,” he tells his hosts, and smiles while explaining his philosophy. “So long as someone is not harming someone else, don’t be a nanny. Don’t be a meddler. We need less taxation in this country, less litigation, and less regulation.”

The son of a football Hall of Famer also named George Allen, Allen inherited his father’s politics and competitive streak. He’ll

need it—the ticket is wide open, although none of the big names offer perfection. John McCain is a maverick. New Yorkers Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki are pro-choice. The Mormon governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, has run a largely liberal state. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback is an emblem of the religious right. Senate majority leader Bill Frist has fumbled major agenda items. If superstars Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney or Jeb Bush keep out of the race, Allen could be as good as it gets.

For many who run for president, a Senate seat is a kiss of death—permitting few concrete accomplishments and yielding tangled voting records. But Allen amassed his reputation while governor from 1994 to 1998. His welfare reform was “the toughest in the country,” he boasts. He cut off benefits to single mothers who did not identify the fathers of their children—and dramatically raised paternity identification rates. He imposed school standards and abolished parole for felons.

In the Senate, he worked to ban taxation of Internet transactions and to increase the death payment to bereaved military families from US$12,000 to US$100,000. He also chaired the Senate Republicans’ fundraising committee in the last election, building a national donor network, and sharing credit for an expanded GOP majority. But Allen still wobbles on the delicate issues that divide the party. He says he is for federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research—but only if it does not involve the destruction of embryos. He talks about the “need to keep spending in line,” while praising the passage of a US$286-billion, pork-laden highway bill and a US$14.5-billion energy bill.

But there is time to refine his message. Football offers various political lessons, he observes. Among them, “You don’t want to wait until the opening week of the season to start preparing,” he says. With that, he climbs back into the RV that will later take him to a college football practice, his own big game still three years away. lui