Senate Race

Campaign Is a Yawner No Longer

By Robert Barnes and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Donald S. Beyer Jr., the longtime Virginia Democratic pol and virtuoso salesman, said he has learned an important rule about filling key jobs in the family auto business: "Don't hire from the outside. You don't know what you're getting."

But the crowd of Democratic activists, middle-aged bottoms balanced on seats made for seventh-graders in a Fairfax County school cafeteria, knew that Beyer was not just talking about cars. The former lieutenant governor and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate was talking about how Democrats should view the two Northern Virginia political newbies -- the insider and the outsider -- who have taken on the task that Beyer himself was reluctant to embrace: running for the Senate against the gregarious and conservative Republican incumbent, George Allen, who is seeking his second term.

Democrats once would have been happy to find even one person willing to run against Allen, one of the state's most popular politicians and the odds-on favorite for reelection.

But a changing political climate -- both in the country and in the commonwealth -- has produced a race closely watched nationally for signals about Virginia's revitalized Democratic Party, the commonwealth's status as a reliably Republican state in federal elections and Allen's own presidential aspirations for 2008.

Beyer's candidate is insider Harris Miller, a high-tech executive, lobbyist and Democratic loyalist who for years has worked in the background of political campaigns. Beyer reminisced about the two of them writing issue papers that helped get Democrat Gerald L. Baliles elected governor in 1985.

"He's been an ardent, active, committed, working Democrat all his life. . . . Harris Miller did not have to change or modify who he is or what he believes or what he stands for in order to get into this race," Beyer told the Fairfax County Democratic Committee members. And they should know: Miller, 54, was the group's president for six years.

His opponent is James H. Webb, a Vietnam hero, author and recently minted Democrat who was hoisted into the race about a month ago by bloggers and almost evangelical Internet followers who love the combination of his military past and from-the-jump opposition to the Iraq war. They overlook that he worked for Ronald Reagan, voted for George W. Bush the first time around and even endorsed Allen six years ago; they think he's electable.

Webb said that "there are a lot of people out there like me -- red-state folks, working-class people" who never felt comfortable in the Republican Party because of what he called its reliance on "God, guns, gays, abortion and the flag." Webb said that those voters are open to a different kind of Democratic message and that he "can bring 'em back."

In the June 13 primary, any Virginia voter who wants to be a Democrat for a day can participate, and the state's lack of seriously contested Democratic primaries makes it difficult to predict. Last year, a Democratic primary for lieutenant governor drew 2.6 percent of voters.

Miller was the first to get in the race, back when Democrats were worried about finding a challenger to Allen. It is just one of the favors that put him in good stead with the party establishment and earned him the support of many elected officials, especially in Northern Virginia.

"I've known Harris for a quarter of a century," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who has endorsed Miller. "He's a known quantity. For a lot of people, he is a comfortable fit."

Miller's rise from the "coal and steel country of western Pennsylvania" to the high-tech corridors of Northern Virginia lends itself to the American Dream background that politicians crave, and it has also made him a wealthy man. He offered for the first three months of this year to put in $1 of his own money for every $2 his campaign raises.

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