ARLINGTON, Va.—Sen. George Allen of Virginia might be getting a little ahead of himself.
He traveled to Iowa this weekend to headline a state Republican event, part of his early jockeying for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. But before he can set his sights on the White House, he must hold onto his seat in the Senate.
At this early stage, Allen is favored to win a second term. But analysts say the state has moved away from Allen toward the political center. And Democrats think they've found the right candidate to take on Allen.
This past week they nominated Republican-turned-Democrat James Webb, a secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, a man who loathed Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, questions affirmative action and supports gun rights, and endorsed both George W. Bush and Allen in 2000.
He's also a decorated combat veteran who opposed the Iraq war from the onset. Allen supports the war.
The clash between the two men has national implications. Allen holds one of eight Republican seats that the Democrats are targeting in their effort to win control of the Senate in November. They need a net gain of six seats, assuming that they lose one or more of the ones they hold now.
For Allen, a weak showing would damage his presidential prospects, and a loss would end them.
"He is weaker than at any time in his career," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
"He has never changed and Virginia has. Virginia has moderated. Allen has boxed himself in with 97 percent support for the Bush administration. Now, President Bush is below 40 percent approval in Virginia. And the Iraq war is unpopular, even in the Tidewater, which is a very military area."
Allen, 54, is finishing his first term in the Senate, with a solidly conservative voting record, for tax cuts, supporting the Iraq war, against abortion.
He also finishes his first Senate term with some apparent frustration with life as one of 100 senators. "I made more decisions in half a day as governor than you can make in a whole week in the Senate," Allen told the New York Times earlier this year. "It's too slow for me."
Allen was an active governor before he moved on to the Senate, working with the state legislature to abolish parole, requiring parental notice before minors could have abortions and requiring welfare recipients to work.
His record has won him support from conservatives such as Marion Anderson of Springfield, Va., a Washington suburb. "I respect his conservative values," she said.
Allen's folksy charm works, too. "He has charisma," Anderson added.
Despite his support for the Bush agenda, Allen supporters don't think he's a rubber stamp.
He voted this spring against the Bush-favored immigration overhaul that would include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. "On that, he's stronger than the president," said Polly Korpanty of Alexandria, Va.
Webb, however, thinks Allen is vulnerable.
On Friday, Webb said Allen could be defeated because Bush and the Iraq war have lost support in the state as Virginia has grown more moderate. Democratic wins in the 2001 and 2005 governor's races backed that up, he said.
Moreover, he said, he's the kind of candidate who can lure back voters who left the Democratic Party years ago.
"I hope and believe a good number of people who call themselves Reagan Democrats will come back," he said.
"My experience is representative. I grew up in a Democratic household, went to the Republican Party principally on national security issues. A lot of people were never fully comfortable with the Republican Party on economic or social issues. They look at what's happened with national security, particularly the rush to war in Iraq, and are looking for a different way."
Webb supporters applaud his early opposition to the war and think his Republican history will help him win over moderate or conservative voters.
"He opposed the war at the outset when all the other Democrats capitulated to Bush," said Audrey Clement of Arlington, Va.
"He can beat George Allen," added Susan Dudley of Annandale, Va. "The Senate has been a puppet of the Bush administration. And people are fed up with the Bush agenda. Allen said he's bored with the Senate. I'd like to take care of that for him."
For more on the two campaigns, go to:
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JAMESWEBB
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Sen. George Allen
Need to map