WASHINGTON—Highlighting candidates' race-tinged comments seems to be the campaign gotcha of this political season, even if the words were uttered decades ago.
Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia has been fending off charges of racism for almost two months and now he's on the spot for allegedly making offensive comments about Blacks and other groups in the 1970s. His Democrat opponent, Jim Webb, has had to answer for writing dialogue in a novel that includes a common racial slur.
The finger also has been pointed at another candidate, entertainer Kinky Friedman, who's making a bid for governor in Texas. He's publicly made blunt, sometimes ethnically offensive, comments as far back as a 1980 nightclub act.
Whether it's fair game to scrutinize such remarks — and whether it works to turn voters against a candidate — seems to depend on the individual case.
"The American people try to be fair — people will give you a chance to explain," said Frederick J. Antczak, an expert on political rhetoric at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. "It all depends on whether people can connect this to previous incidents or to a voting record.
"I just don't think that the majority of Americans are inclined anymore to tolerate open and unapologetic instances of racism," he said.
Friedman, a country singer and humorist, is an independent candidate. Last month, he called Hurricane Katrina evacuees, most of whom are Black, "crackheads and thugs," but later apologized. On a 1980 audio tape that resurfaced last month, he mocked several ethnic groups and used a racial slur for Blacks: He insisted he was joking, though the Texas NAACP demanded an apology.
A fictional character in Webb's 2001 novel "Fields of Fire," about the Vietnam War, uses the slur for Blacks as well. "It would be disingenuous to say he (Webb) has never used the term before," said Jessica Smith, his spokesperson, "but never in a derogatory way."
Allen has faced criticism for a string of remarks in recent weeks. On Aug. 11, he called a Webb campaign volunteer of Indian descent "macaca," a type of monkey, and a few weeks later seemed irritated when asked about new revelations that his maternal grandfather was Jewish. Allen said he loves eating pork, which violates Jewish dietary laws.
Last month, Allen's college classmates and acquaintances went public with stories from the 1970s and '80s that he routinely made racist comments about Blacks. He has said the stories are untrue. His campaign did not respond to requests for further comment.
"Of course I would want to know where my candidate stands on his sensitivities or insensitivities, and I think it's appropriate to bring those things up — candidates should address that," said Tara Wall, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. "But Sen. Allen has been the butt of a campaign of hate. He's been a governor, he's been a senator and all this is coming up now?"
Not only is it coming up — it seems to be having an effect. An MSNBC/McClatchy Poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. and released on Friday had Allen and Webb in a dead heat. Two months ago, a Mason-Dixon poll had Allen leading by 16 percentage points.
"The 'macaca' moment was certainly a turning point in the campaign," Smith said.
No matter when they're uttered, verbal missteps regarding race have long been political weapons.
Earlier this year, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and White House spokesperson Tony Snow were quickly criticized for using the term "tar baby" in separate incidents to describe sticky situations. Both said they were unaware that some consider it a derogatory term for Blacks.
Sen. Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, said in 2002 the country would be better off if Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina had been elected during his bid for president in 1948. Thurmond had promised to preserve racial segregation during that run but changed that stance later in life. He died in 2003.
Even though Lott had quietly supported groups and issues in the South that many civil rights activists condemned, he was pressured to quit as Senate majority leader after his comments about Thurmond reverberated across the nation.
As Lott's experience showed, politicians sometimes make comments that are well-received among sympathetic listeners but don't go over well on a broader stage, Antczak said. "There's an inability to handle the nationalization of the rhetoric," he said.
When an elected official is repeatedly accused of making offensive comments — even if the comments are years-old and unproven — they can have a cumulative effect, said Dianne M. Pinderghughes, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame.
Voters begin to believe that "something is there. You don't know what it is, you don't know how substantive it is, but every time you dig, more stuff comes out," she said. "People start asking, 'Who is this person? Does he have values that are problematic?'"
Voters, especially minorities, often re-examine a candidate's voting record on issues concerning their communities when racially sensitive comments get a lot of attention, said Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"The question will be," Shelton said, "if he (a candidate) is indeed that insensitive to their issues and concerns, will he advocate for their needs on Capitol Hill?"
— The Associated Press