As campaign blunders go, it was about as bad as they get.
At a picnic in Breaks, Va., on August 11, 2006, S.R. Sidarth was filming Sen. George Allen (R) -- something he'd been doing for weeks -- when Allen, microphone in hand, looked over at him. What happened next was one of the more memorable moments of the 2006 election cycle. To this day, the video remains cringe-inducing:
Allen had seemingly revealed himself to be, at best, an insensitive buffoon and at worst a racist bully. Allen appeared on "Meet the Press" to explain -- "I made a mistake," he said -- and claimed in the same interview that he'd made up the word and didn't think it would carry any racial connotations. "Macaca" had been used as a slur by French colonialists in referring to native Africans.
The moment probably cost Allen the race. Almost immediately after the "macaca" incident happened, Allen dropped 10 percentage points in major polls: On July 27, Allen led Webb by 16 points in a Mason-Dixon poll. In the first poll conducted after the incident, an August 16 Rasmussen survey, the gap was down to five. The race instantly shifted from projected Allen landslide to a competitive affair.
A lot of things went wrong for Allen in 2006. In another memorable moment from that race, a Democratic heckler was put into a headlock and wrestled to the ground at an Allen event.
Now, Allen is running for office again. In 2012, he's a favorite to win the GOP nomination for the seat he used to hold. Webb recently announced that he wouldn't seek another term.
So how badly will this epic campaign blunder come back to haunt him in 2012?
It's important to remember that the "macaca" incident didn't completely sour Virginia voters on Allen last time around. Despite Allen's disastrous campaign, the 2006 race was a close one. Allen still led by single digits for much of it. Webb won by just over 7,000 votes, 50 percent to 49 -- this despite a strong wind for Democrats nationwide, and despite Webb's heavy campaigning against President Bush's handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This time around, things are looking pretty good for Allen. He could have to go up against a big-name Democrat if former governor Tim Kaine leaves the helm of the Democratic National Committee to run for the Senate. But the national momentum is much better for Republicans right now than it was in August 2006.
The "macaca" episode might not even come up too often -- particularly if President Obama's reelection campaign sets the tone in 2012.
"You've got a campaign for president, which is gonna be predominately focused on issues, and so people are going to be battling out over issues, and then all of a sudden an ad comes up attacking George Allen personally for something he said six years ago," and that won't seem to fit with the tone set by Obama's campaign, said a Virginia Republican strategist.
"Allen has to keep the campaign about issues, because if he keeps the campaign about issues, then from a tactical standpoint he's got the upper hand," said the strategist, who added that Democrats would lose the moral high-ground by bringing up Allen's awful 2006 blunder, if Allen and Republicans refrained from personal attacks themselves.
The Virginia Democratic Party says it's not certain it will make much of the "macaca" incident this time around, though such decisions will largely be up to the Democratic candidate and his or her campaign.
"I think Virginia, like America, is a very forgiving place, in that people will give you a chance to explain and move on from kind of one-off incidents that you wish you would have done better," said state party spokesman Brian Coy. "The thing that's tougher to forgive is six years of being mediocre at best as a U.S. senator."
If there are to be TV ads replaying the "macaca" incident in an attempt to damage Allen, it appears they'll most likely come from independent groups unaffiliated with either the sate party or the Democratic challenger's campaign -- a dynamic that emerges every campaign cycle in multiple states across the country. But the Republican strategist I spoke to makes a valid point: In 2008, President Obama sent a clear message that he did not want independent, soft-money groups airing below-the-belt ads about John McCain, and Obama '08 carefully controlled its message across the country.
Of course, such dictums don't always extend to state-level races, and Democrats are planning to ramp up their independent expenditure groups for the 2012 cycle. But if the word gets out in Democratic circles that Obama's camp wants to keep 'macaca' out of the narrative, it's conceivable their directive will be largely obeyed -- particularly if the Democratic standard-bearer is an administration loyalist like Kaine. Virginia will be a priority for Obama in 2012, after carrying the state in 2008, and his campaign will likely keep a watchful eye on multiple factors in Virginia's campaign landscape.
As tough as it is to imagine, Allen could avoid reliving that dreaded moment throughout the entire 2012 campaign. Perhaps Virginia is a forgiving place, and even the biggest of campaign disasters won't ruin his career for good.