Is George Allen the frontrunner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination? Many of the activists who attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last week think so: Allen, the junior senator from Virginia, won a plurality of 22% in a straw poll, conducted by Fabrizio, McLaughlin, and Associates, which asked CPAC attendees who is most likely to win the 2008 presidential nomination for each party. (For the Democratic nomination question, Hillary Clinton won with 62%.)
A legislator with an executive temperament, Allen is most celebrated for his accomplishments as Governor of Virginia. In four years (Virginia governors are limited to one term), Allen pushed through historic reforms of the justice system, welfare, education, and economic development. Allen is running for re-election this year, but there’s little doubt his ambition runs higher than the U.S. Senate. “As governor, I made more decisions in the morning than I make in the Senate in a week,” he told National Review’s Rich Lowry last year. “Decisions are action and I like action. I hate just treading water and standing still.”
Allen addressed CPAC-goers at Thursday night’s Presidential Banquet. It wasn’t the greatest appearance. Beginning as dessert was being served, he faced a crowd with divided attention and took a while to fall into a good rhythm and fully engage the audience. The son of a pro football coach, Allen is famous for his gridiron metaphors; “Over a period of a couple of months,” wrote Lowry in National Review, “I heard him compare every significant event in Washington to a football play or situation.” This isn’t always a bad thing, but referring to the crowd of conservative activists as “Team” (as in “Representative democracy, Team, is not a sort of spectator sport”) was a bit much; it had the effect similar to Stephen Colbert, in his Colbert Report cable-news buffoon persona, calling the audience “Nation.” There’s a fine line between aw-shucks amiability and doltishness.
The content of the speech was somewhat reminiscent of a State of the Union address, which is to say Allen covered a lot of ground — perhaps too much. There were mentions of everything from staying the course in Iraq to activist judges to keeping UN bureaucrats’ hands off the Internet. If not for the press release issued before the speech, it would be easy to miss his play for the fiscal conservative mantle: A “paycheck penalty” proposal, first announced in this speech, that would suspend legislators’ pay when Congress fails to pass a budget by October 1st. The bid for attention is a way of running for President from the Senate we can expect more of from Allen; as the Hotline On Call blog points out, Allen’s re-election campaign will make it hard for him to travel to early primary states as often as other presidential hopefuls this year, so he’ll have to do some campaigning from the Senate.
The crowd seemed to love the idea. My sense is that attendee and blogger Brandon Henak, a Marquette University student (college students made up two-thirds of respondents in the 2005 CPAC straw poll), was typical in finding the speech “moving and inspiring.” But if Allen really is going to be the Republican nominee, he had better prepare for crowds that will cut him a lot less slack.
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