ABINGDON, Va. - George Allen ended up with the best of all worlds.
The former Virginia governor and Senator made the call earlier this summer to skip the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. The move signaled how tight a race he was in with former governor and one-time Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine in the open seat campaign to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Jim Webb.
As it worked out, he got to engage in old-fashioned retail politicking in a Virginia that Democrats, including Kaine and President Barack Obama, had no intention of leaving alone for a full week. And he'll still get the exposure of the national ticket when he appears with GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan in Richmond today at a campaign rally to be held less than 24 hours after national Republicans gaveled out their Tampa confab.
"You give me a choice between Southwest Virginia and Tampa, and I'll choose Southwest Virginia each time," Allen said here Thursday at a lunch with veterans. "This is where I got my start."
After graduating from the University of Virginia law school in 1977, Allen clerked here for U.S. District Court Judge Glen Williams.
GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Ryan had been expected to rally in Richmond with Allen today, the first day after the convention. At the last minute this morning, the campaign diverted Romney to New Orleans, which bore most of the brunt of Hurricane Isaac this week.
Still, Ryan's appearance is a move by the national ticket befitting Virginia's status as a battleground. "I hope they spend a lot of time in Virginia," Allen said Thursday.
Tailing Each Other on the Trail
During the GOP convention, Allen might have had the commonwealth to himself among national Republicans, but Democrats made sure he knew they were here, too.
On Tuesday, Allen spoke to the Leisure World retirement community's Republican Club, just outside of Leesburg. The day before, Kaine was in Leesburg meeting and greeting with local officials, and on Thursday spoke to the Leisure World Democratic Club. Both candidates even used the same venue, the Monroe Auditorium.
On Wednesday, Obama and Kaine and former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) rallied about 7,500 in Charlottesville, with Perriello in particular jabbing at Allen.
"George Allen, I have more to say about than I have time allotted here today," Perriello said before turning back to praise Kaine.
The picturesque college town is the site of Allen's formative political years and is what he affectionately refers to as his time at "Mr. Jefferson's university."
It was in the Charlottesville area, after earning a bachelor's as well as a law degree at UVA, that Allen started his political career, serving in the state House of Delegates from 1982 to 1991. He won a U.S. House seat in a special election in 1991.
Allen kept a relatively low profile on Wednesday. At around the same time as the Obama-Kaine rally, he was in nearby Stuarts Draft, touring McKee Foods Corp., maker of Little Debbie products. Later on that evening, he attended a fundraiser in Wythe County.
Obamacare, Redskins and Hungry Mother
Like any successful public official, Allen is able to tailor his approach depending on the audience. At Leisure World, that meant talking about health care - his first big applause line there was "I want to be the deciding vote to repeal Obamacare" - future generations and his beloved Washington Redskins, whose practice facility is just down the road in Ashburn. Allen, whose late father, George, coached the team and whose brother, Bruce, is the general manager, joked that "political campaigns are not conducive to being able to follow my brother."
On Thursday in the small town of Marion, he talked about water and sewer tax collections with a group of local officials huddled over coffee and doughnuts in the office of Ken Heath, Marion's Community and Economic Development director. "It's all about numbers," Heath said, outlining the town's plan to attract more people to visit the area, particularly downtown, which boasts the recently redeveloped Colonial revival-style General Francis Marion Hotel and the Lincoln Theater.
And in Abingdon on Thursday, Allen discussed issues of concern not just to veterans but many area voters: guns, energy policy and national defense. "We need to keep our promises to our veterans," he said, thundering against possible increases in premiums to the military's TRICARE health insurance.
The visits to Marion and Abingdon also reconnected Allen with his past. "I slept in Hungry Mother State Park in my sleeping bag" in his younger days, he told the Marion crowd, many of whom view the eccentrically named nearby park as a key to their tourism goals.
People in Marion also remembered him fondly. Rhonda Cox, whose Four Seasons Restaurant provided the coffee and doughnuts Thursday, told him she wanted to share some photos from his time as governor. "Oh, good. I'll look forward to seeing how much I've aged," Allen quipped. He caught up with one of his appointees to the state Gaming Commission, local attorney Herbert Clay.
Wine and Cinema
Not every crowd was in the mood to reminisce and kibbitz about the Redskins. On Saturday, the day the GOP brain trust made the decision to delay the Tampa convention, Allen was at Veramar Vineyard in Berryville, in the Old Dominion's sublimely scenic Shenandoah Valley wine country.
Clarke County Republicans gathered there to sip Veramar's Cab Franc and Riesling/Vidal, fete Allen and frame the election in near-apocalyptic terms.
"It is our freedom that's at stake this November," state Sen. Mark Obenshain said. "We have lost so much freedom over the course of the last four years that we have an opportunity to roll back some of those changes. We can't do it with just electing Mitt Romney. We can't do it just sending [Rep.] Frank Wolf back to Congress. We have to send them a partner," Obenshain continued as he introduced Allen.
Even the invocation of the vineyard "meet and greet" showed the fighting mood the crowd was in, as Shawn Nicholson, the wife of Clarke County Republican Committee Chairman Andrew Nicholson, cited Ephesians 6:13 from the Bible. That passage reads, according to the New International Version: "Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand." She went on to pray that God "remove those unfit to serve" before ceding the microphone to the other local officials warming up for Allen.
But despite the red meat served up at the Aug. 25 soirÃ©e, Allen likely knows he has to win over independents and even some Democrats in what state Del. Randy Minchew referred to as the "blue virus" in northern Virginia and its bordering counties, including the swingiest of the bunch, Loudon.
"And as you go forward and, in trying to persuade people to get out to vote for our side, I would not, and I say this in all due respect, don't argue, or portray it as red versus blue, or Republican versus Democrat. Talk about our ideas. Our proven solutions. Achievable reforms that will improve people's lives at their kitchen tables," Allen said.
Allen reiterated a similar line in Abingdon, but the questions he took afterward revealed that partisan hard feelings will likely be present throughout the campaign, as several people encouraged Allen and others present to rush to see "2016: Obama's America." The new film by Dinesh D'Souza posits that Obama is seeking to please his dead father by implementing anti-colonialist and socialist policies.
Allen, who repeated the showtimes at the local theater being shouted out to him, tried to redirect people to Romney's nomination acceptance speech, encouraging them to go to the earlier screenings of the movie before tuning in to Romney's night at the convention. "You ought to watch Mitt Romney tonight, so go early," he said.