Kal Penn Stumps for Obama, Supporters Look to Make Blue from Red

Two years to the day after a Democratic volunteer with a handheld camera captured the "macaca" on tape that rocked Virginia GOP Sen. George Allen's re-election campaign, Virginia's left-leaning Asian-Americans still hear its echo as a political rallying cry.

Allen, who once harbored dreams of a 2008 presidential campaign, would ultimately lose his re-election bid to Democrat Jim Webb, unable to recover, some say, from his caught-on-tape moment when he singled out S.R. Siddarth, a camera-toting aid to Webb at a campaign event, and said "This fellow here...macaca or whatever his name is...he's following us around everywhere."

Siddarth, then a college junior volunteering for the Webb campaign, saw his viral video harness the early power of YouTube. The slur in question was, of course, "macaca," a derogatory term meaning "monkey" and used by French colonialists to describe Africans. The online spread of the video provoked outrage.

Speaking Monday night at a South Asians for Obama house party in Northern Virginia, actor Kal Penn -- half of the pot-smoking duo from the "Harold and Kumar" movies -- looked back to the future by recognizing the anniversary of the political gaffe. "Happy Macaca Day," he called it.

The timing and location of Penn's political push was no accident. Though Virginia hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in the general election since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the state has gained Democratic traction in recent years in its governors, senators and congressman.

Having established nearly thirty field offices in the Old Dominion State and floating the names of Virginia's Democratic political elite on his long and short vice presidential lists, Obama's campaign is determined to turn his 64 percent sweep during the state's open Democratic primary into November gold.

Penn, who endorsed Obama in December 2007, belongs to a group of celebrity surrogates for the the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee whose ranks include Oprah Winfrey, Scarlett Johannsson, Kate Walsh and Robert DeNiro.

Joe Montano, the northern Virginia Democratic political director who introduced Penn at this week's event, also referenced the macaca heard round the world, calling it an event that "roused Asian-Americans [to] help Jim Webb win the Senate."

Among Asian groups, Allen's gaffe was unquestionably roiling, but for political scientists the significance of the incident ranges from "isolated" to one whose domino effect helped change the makeup of the Senate.

"I tend to think that was an isolated incident and one that had great impact in 2006 but isn't thought of a great deal these days," says Bob Gibson of the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.

Dr. Larry Sabato of UVA's Center for Politics disagrees, calling "macaca" a "political earthquake" that helped Virginia Democrats redefine themselves in the glow of the national spotlight.

More than just political parties were redefined in the aftermath, Sabato says. "Allen could have been the Republican nominee. We could have been sitting here talking Allen versus Obama had it not been for 'macaca.'"

Allen had already been battling image issues in the arena of diversity, Sabato argued, and after the "macaca" moment, "a lot of people just stood up and said enough."

But one viral video isn't enough to shift decades-old political precedent. Virginia's shifting demographics have inched it towards new political realities.

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