Back on February 16, when the political class was still having a conniption over Dick Cheney’s itchy trigger finger, Republican senator George Allen was already briskly moving on to the next controversy in the queue. In a letter to Treasury Secretary John Snow, Allen registered his “concern” with the Bush administration’s just-revealed approval of the Dubai Ports World deal. “As you know,” Allen wrote, “Dubai has been a transfer point in the proliferation of nuclear components. In addition, the September 11th terrorists spent time in [the United Arab Emirates] and utilized its banking system in carrying out their attacks . . . I respectfully request that you carefully and thoroughly review how [the deal] could affect the national security of the United States.”
Though Allen was among the first Republicans to articulate his unease, he was hardly the most the prominent, the loudest, or the most hysterical. There were Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, sprinting to catch up with the bandwagon a week later, threatening to put the deal on ice. There were Mike Bloomberg and George Pataki (the latter from his hospital bed), joining hands with Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton to present a united front of Big Apple opposition. And there was conservative radio nightmare Michael Savage, doing what he does best—foaming profusely at the mouth and fomenting xenophobia.
Yet even amid this braying chorus, Allen’s muted voice stood out. Not because of what he said, but because of his putative position in the 2008 presidential race. A first-term senator from Virginia and former governor of that state, Allen is viewed by many Republican professionals as the likeliest GOP nominee. And even those who see John McCain as the party’s front-runner will tell you that Allen is his strongest challenger from the right—a man who, as the National Review’s Richard Lowry wrote recently, “combines the people skills of Bill Clinton, with the convictions of Ronald Reagan, with the non-threatening persona of George W. Bush circa 2000, prior to his becoming a hate-figure for the Left.”
All of which suggests that Allen’s position on the Dubai ports deal may prove to be a leading indicator of one of the most important emerging dynamics in politics right now. A year ago, the 2008 Republican race looked set to be a competition to be seen as Bush’s rightful heir and logical successor, to get as close as possible to the president without literally jumping into bed with him. But now that calculus is being rendered inoperative, for not only is Bush’s popularity with the broad electorate at an all-time low (34 percent, according to the latest CBS poll), but his support within the GOP, especially among conservatives, is slipping measurably as well. For Allen and the other Republican wannabes, therefore, the question increasingly is no longer “How close can I get to Bush?” The question is “How much distance can I, should I, safely put between us?”
Not long ago, I had my first chance to catch Allen in action before a sizable crowd, as the headline speaker in a hotel ballroom brimming with conservative activists. Allen is the son of the late George Herbert Allen, the legendary coach of the L.A. Rams and Washington Redskins in the sixties and seventies. And so this line of the senator’s was probably inevitable: “There were four F’s that were important in the Allen family—faith, family, freedom, and football, not necessarily in that order.” But that was just the start. In the space of 30 minutes, Allen referred to his audience as his “teammates,” declared the need for a “game plan,” eschewed “Monday-morning quarterbacking,” and concluded with this pearl: “Representative democracy, team, is not a spectator sport!”
If this sort of thing isn’t your brand of vodka, Allen won’t be, either. At 53, he has the face of Goober Pyle and the vocal intonations to match. (This despite being raised near Chicago and in Palos Verdes, California.) He wears cowboy boots, dips Copenhagen (his spit cup is forever at the ready), and worships both Dale Earnhardts (Sr. and Jr.). In sum, he’s the NASCAR candidate.
Yet his political skills are estimable. In his race for governor, in 1993, he came from 27 points behind to defeat the Democratic attorney general. Employing a lethal combination of backslapping bonhomie and bare-knuckle ruthlessness—to Virginia Republicans he said of Democrats, “Let’s enjoy knocking their soft teeth down their whining throats”—he largely succeeded in enacting his agenda: a more-permissive concealed-weapons law, the abolition of parole, parental notification for abortion, strict welfare reform. When Allen left office, his approval rating was 68 percent. And while his Senate tenure has been fairly slight on substance, he can boast that, as chairman of the Republican Senatorial Committee in 2004, he helped add four seats to the GOP majority—and slay “the chief obstructionist,” as he refers to Tom Daschle.