Former Virginia senator Jim Webb stumps for fellow Democrats in Iowa


Former Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), shown here in 2012, was stumping in Iowa this week and has announced plans to visit New Hampshire as well. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Former Virginia senator Jim Webb touched down in Iowa, announced plans to hit New Hampshire and launched a new presence on social media this week — renewing speculation about whether the decorated war veteran who left the Senate after one term is considering a run for president.

The Iowa swing had everything: campaign events, phone banks, a speech to union organizers and a veterans roundtable — all chronicled for the world to see on Webb’s Twitter account.

The whirlwind, 800-mile tour surprised some Virginia Democrats, who remember Webb as a brilliant thinker who was passionate about fixing the country’s problems but uncomfortable with the retail politicking and day-to-day donor outreach that feed a modern political operation. Several Democrats voiced a similar reaction but requested anonymity so as not to appear to be criticizing Webb.

If his actions suggest a 2016 bid could be in his future, Webb insists he’s simply eager to spread a message of economic fairness and social justice, a realigned foreign policy and an end to executive overreach.

“He’s thinking about how he could contribute to the country, and if that’s one way to do it that’s something he’ll think about in the future,” said Jessica Vanden Berg, a former senior adviser to Webb who was his Senate campaign manager.

Webb was swept into office in 2006 on a wave of Democratic enthusiasm and millions in national campaign cash from a party bent on unseating then-senator George Allen, a Republican force whose campaign imploded after he used a racial slur against a Democratic volunteer who was videotaping him at a rally in southwest Virginia.

A Vietnam veteran who took to wearing his Marine son’s combat boots on the trail, Webb cut a stark contrast to the cowboy boot-clad Allen.

In office, Webb pushed for and achieved landmark legislation that updated the G.I. Bill to help veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan obtain educational benefits. But he remained a loner. Democrats who watched him work at the time said he was the right man for the moment but not the kind of backslapping dealmaker who often thrives on Capitol Hill.

At a White House reception for freshman members of Congress, Webb tried to avoid George W. Bush and reacted coolly when the president asked, “How’s your boy?” referring to Webb’s son, who was serving in Iraq at the time.

“I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President,” Webb said.

“That’s not what I asked you,” Bush said. “How’s your boy?”

“That’s between me and my boy, Mr. President,” Webb said, ending the conversation.

David “Mudcat” Saunders, a veteran Democratic Party strategist who was a personal adviser to Webb during the campaign, said that, according to Webb’s book, he resigned after one term in the Senate for fear of becoming a whiner or part of the system.

“Jim is very methodical in what he does, in his thinking,” Saunders said. “Jim’s a natural leader. People fall in behind him. I think if I could push a button and make him king for four years, I would. He’s just exactly what this country needs.”

Webb spent little if any time in office — or since — building the network of donors and supporters needed to compete against someone like former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who is widely expected to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), in contrast, has been trying to build just such a network, in addition to traveling to Iowa and New Hampshire, as he contemplates his own bid for president.

People close to Webb say he doesn’t follow a prescribed path.

In May, he sat for an interview coinciding with the publication of his 10th book, a memoir titled “I Heard My Country Calling,” and sparked talk that he might jump back into politics.

“My wife and I are just thinking about what to do next. I care a lot about where the country is, and we’ll be sorting that out,” he said on WAMU’s “Diane Rehm Show” when asked whether he was considering a 2016 run.

A few days later, Webb clarified that he wasn’t sure what the future holds.

“We’re taking it a day at a time,” he said during a lecture at the National Archives. “I care a lot about the issues facing our country, and I’m going to be participating, helping people and doing things.”

Shortly after that, in early June, Webb posted a letter on the Web site of his political action committee, Born Fighting, announcing he was stepping back into public view.

“I am now ready to re-enter the debate, and I am asking that you consider helping me do so,” he wrote. “In recent years the political arguments in this country have become ever more extreme and unproductive, long on speeches and short on results. I don’t need to tell you that our country has suffered for it.”

The letter prompted unsolicited donations — and invitations to Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, Vanden Berg said.

From Wednesday to Friday, Webb hit the Quad Cities, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Council Bluffs and Marshalltown — and sat for a raft of interviews with Iowa reporters. His Facebook page and Twitter feed — @JimWebbUSA — documented it all with photos at the Iowa Federation of Labor’s state convention and on the trail for U.S. Senate hopeful Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) and U.S. Rep. David Loebsack (D-Iowa).

And in case anyone had forgotten about Webb’s quirky style, he threw a few reminders into his feed as well — including this one: “I am comfortable to say I’m the only Senator elected with a union card, 3 tattoos and 2 Purple Hearts.”

Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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