What does it take for the national media to turn its attention to a senate race? Macaca. For what reason are we asked to start caring about the fortunes of a senator who has been billed as a presidential contender? Macaca. And what, now that we’re listening, do the papers and broadcasts have to tell us about this important race? You got it — macaca.

We don’t want to throw cold water on what was a fun-filled week of Jewish jokes and obscure North African slurs, but we are beginning to wonder about the coverage of the Virginia senate race. First there was George Allen’s use of macaca, then the photo of him posing with the benignly named Concerned Citizens Council and, of course, the revelation of his Jewish heritage (the fierce denial, the tearful acceptance, and then, hilariously, accusations his opponent was engaging in anti-Semitism). And that might not be the end — now there are allegations of racism from Allen’s college days.

But all this, we fear, has masked what is actually a very interesting and important race.

If Allen is a racist or a self-hating Jew, it’s something voters should know. But there is a much more compelling story in the match-up between Allen and James Webb, the Democrat vying for his seat. On the most potent political issue of the day — the war in Iraq — these two are not only diametrically opposed, but also strong defenders and representatives of their respective sides of the debate. Allen is one of the more prominent Republicans in the country, a “paragon of sunbelt conservatism,” as the New York Times recently dubbed him, who has stood unwaveringly behind the president and his stay-the-course mantra on Iraq. Webb, a former Republican and Secretary of the Navy under Reagan who is also a decorated Vietnam vet, opposed the war from the beginning and now thinks it is being waged disastrously. To add to the credibility of Webb’s critique, his son, Jimmy, a Marine, is now serving in Iraq. In short, as many observers have noted, it’s cowboy boots versus combat boots.

It’s one of those races that makes you realize that — despite what the cynics often say — American political life does contain widely varied visions of how things should be, and it does make a difference who’s in charge. But unfortunately, our chances to see this side of the race are few and far between. When we do touch the substance of their differences, things crackle. Take, for instance, the September 17 episode of “Meet the Press.” To his great credit, Tim Russert pitted the two candidates against each other and forced them to articulate and further define their own positions. Only at the very end did Russert utter the word “macaca.” Instead he asked Allen, “‘Stay the course.’ What does that mean? How do you define victory in Iraq, and can it be won militarily?” And Russert asked Webb, “You think that we can be out of Iraq within two years. How would you do that?”

Look at this exchange, just one of many that illuminated real differences between them:

Allen: The point is, is we made a decision. You got to stand by your decision and you can’t be constantly second-guessing, Monday-morning quarterbacking. My opponent is — the whole theme of his campaign is we should not have gone in. The question is: where do we go from now? And as a practical matter, listening to Mr. Webb’s …

Webb: Let’s not go into that, too, George.

Allen: … listening to Mr. Webb’s statements …

Webb: I don’t — I’m waiting for you to say where you want to go.

Allen: … there isn’t, there isn’t that much of a difference insofar as the future.

Russert: Is that true?

Webb: That’s absolutely not true, you know. I, I have not …

Russert: Could the money have been better spent?

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.