Racial blunders give senator a rough ride on the campaign trail

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The Independent US

Once upon a time, he was a certainty to hold his Senate seat - a cowboy-booted good ol' boy with a genial smile and a fair shot at the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. But after a bizarre string of disasters, ranging from alleged racism to his handling of revelations of his hidden Jewish ancestry, George Allen is in the political fight of his life.

Six weeks before the mid-term elections, the senator is in a statistical dead heat with his opponent, James Webb - and his once safe seat in solidly Republican Virginia is now a top Democratic target as they seek to wrest back control of the Senate in November. And his problems, analysts agree, are entirely of his own making.

They began last month when the senator addressed a young Democratic campaign worker of Indian ancestry, calling him "macaca" and welcoming him "to America". That episode set off a furious philological debate: where did "macaca" come from, and was it a racist word? Some linked it to the macaque species of monkey, claiming it was a derogatory term used in Europe for African immigrants. Nonsense, said others; it was merely an Italian (or Spanish) word for clown. Mr Allen first maintained he made it up on the spur of the moment, then said that he had a niece nicknamed Maca-Maca. The mystery remained, but the damage was done.

Next came the matter of his Jewish ancestry. On the face of it the revelation was astonishing; no senator seems less Jewish than Mr Allen, the son of a Washington Redskins football coach with a long-held fondness for the confederate flag. But, it emerged, his mother, Etty, had been brought up as a Jew in her native Tunisia. Learned observations about her family's eminent status in north Africa appeared on the blogs. Somewhat implausibly, however, Mr Allen claimed she had only told him about it a few weeks ago, after the question had first come up in public. The senator then raged at a female reporter who raised the issue during a campaign debate with Mr Webb, railing at her for "casting aspersions". Since when, it was asked, was Jewish ancestry an "aspersion"? Mr Allen tried to reassure any wavering Gentile supporters by saying he still ate ham sandwiches.

By then, his hefty lead over Mr Webb had shrunk to a 46-42 advantage. But the worst came over the weekend, when two of the senator's old college acquaintances attested that they had heard Mr Allen in the late Seventies and Eighties use racist slurs - including the N-word.

First Christopher Taylor, an admitted Democrat, claimed that Mr Allen had used the term when the two were discussing the turtles in a pond near his home. "The only people who eat 'em round here" were blacks, whom Mr Allen referred to with the N-word.

Then a former team-mate of the senator on the University of Virginia football team said Mr Allen told him he had only moved to Virginia because in the former confederate state, "the blacks know their place". Ken Shelton claimed, moreover, that on a hunting trip Mr Allen had asked where the nearest black person lived, and then attached the head of a deer they had shot to his mailbox.

The senator said Mr Shelton's allegations were "ludicrously and completely false". Aides also dismissed the charges made by Mr Taylor. The N-word "was not part of his behaviour", they declared. Old friends of the senator said they had never heard him utter a racially offensive word.

But the matter will not die. Mr Shelton says that in their student days, Mr Allen gave him the nickname Wizard, as a reference to another Shelton who was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The senator disputes this. "Wizard," he says, was a term of admiration for Mr Shelton's magical abilities on the football field.

All along, Mr Webb and the Democrats have observed a judicious silence. The former, by common consent, is not the world's greatest campaigner. But who needs to be, when your opponent is self-destructing?

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