CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—In its final week, the U.S. Senate campaign in Virginia came down to this:
A liberal blogger tried to ask Republican Sen. George Allen about the most urgent issue he could think of—whether Allen had spit on his first wife. Then Allen's aides put the man in a chokehold and threw him on the floor.
That episode Tuesday, captured on video by a local news crew, summed up how one of the races that could determine which party controls the Senate has degenerated into bitter name-calling and personal attacks instead of a debate over the issues that matter most to voters.
It started very differently, as a clash over the Iraq war between Allen and Democrat James Webb, a former secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. Allen supports the war; Webb's vehement opposition prompted him to switch parties from Republican to Democratic and to challenge Allen.
The campaign changed when Allen unleashed a firestorm over the summer by calling a dark-skinned Webb volunteer a "macaca," which Democrats labeled a racial slur. Allen soon was inundated with stories accusing him of using racial slurs as a college student.
He was losing support fast when he pleaded to change the subject.
"Virginians expect to hear us address the real issues you care about," the Virginia Republican said in a primetime TV appearance in early October. "Over the past several weeks, that hasn't been the case. Some of this I brought on myself. But the negative personal attacks and baseless allegations have also pulled us away from what you expect and deserve."
Yet Allen responded by launching counterattacks on Webb for including sex scenes in his best-selling war novels, attacks that have continued into the final week of the campaign. National Republicans also launched ads ripping Webb for criticizing women in the military 25 years ago and calling a 1991 investigation of Navy pilots for abusing women a "witch hunt."
On a recent campaign swing through Portsmouth, Va., Allen insisted that all the dirt has come from Webb and that his attacks on sex scenes in Webb's novels are the kind of serious issue he wanted the campaign to address.
"My opponent does say he's proud of being an author and a novelist. Those passages, people have found demeaning to women," Allen said during a stop at the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, standing beside a display case featuring the short shorts and sequined halter top of a Washington Redskins cheerleader. Allen's father coached the Redskins in the 1970s.
Allen also brushed aside demands from Democrats that he explain why his name is listed without any detail in a 1974 Virginia court docket. Aides have said he was cited for unpaid parking tickets and for fishing without a license. National Democrats suggest that his name could be listed for anything ranging from parking tickets to assault, but they offer no evidence of any crime.
Webb, too, insisted that he's refused to participate in the name-calling and character attacks.
"We haven't done that. . . I have declined to go after George Allen when he was in trouble," he told supporters at a University of Virginia rally.
"I don't think you'll find an attack ad with my name on it," he said afterward. "I've been talking about the issues every day."
In his rally, Webb did talk at length about the Iraq war, praising the soldiers fighting there and criticizing Allen for not asking hard questions before supporting the war.
But it was Webb's campaign that set off the "macaca" brouhaha by releasing the video of Allen and the Webb aide. And it's been liberals and national Democrats talking about Allen's divorce or his court record from 32 years ago.
Voters said they didn't like the nasty campaign and wished it would return to more substantive issues. But many saw that through partisan lenses: The attacks on their candidate are nasty and trivial; the attacks on the other side are deserved.
"All the negative ads turn me off," said Bev Graeber, a Republican who singled out anti-Republican ads from the liberal group Moveon.org as particularly offensive. "They make me sad. I wish it was back on the issues."
Barbara Barton, a Democrat, said the criticisms of Allen were justified. "The macaca stuff really irritated me," she said. "Allen picked on the only dark face in a crowd of white faces. That IS substantive."
Polls show the Allen-Webb race is a toss-up. Voters decide Tuesday.
For more on the campaigns, go to www.georgeallen.com and www.webbforsenate.com
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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