Running for Senate, and Against the War

By Robert Barnes 
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006

From a cocktail party of liberal contributors in Baltimore to the ball-cap-wearing crowd in a conservative town in southwest Virginia, wherever Democratic loyalists gather, there are five words sure to prompt applause for a Senate candidate:

End the war in Iraq.

Virginia Democrat James H. Webb Jr.'s early warnings about invading Iraq are the main reason he has been so embraced by the liberal bloggers who started a draft movement to get him into the race. Maryland candidate Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin was one of 133 House members who voted against the original resolution authorizing President Bush to take action -- and he might be the most conservative on the issue among Democrats seeking to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D).

And Webb's Democratic opponent in the June 13 primary, Harris Miller, called on Bush yesterday to fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and mocked Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) for saying on a talk show that "important progress" is being made in Iraq.

"All of George Allen and George Bush's talk can't hide the fact that they have been wrong or unprepared at nearly every step of this war," Harris said in a conference call with reporters. Allen has been one of the president's strongest supporters on Iraq policy.

At this point, the Democratic candidates in Maryland and Virginia are speaking mostly to the kinds of party activists who take an early interest in campaigns and who are sharply suspicious of the Bush administration.

But the most recent Washington Post poll showed that only 37 percent of the country approved of Bush's handling of the Iraq situation, and respondents said it will be among the key issues in deciding their votes in congressional elections this fall.

"Oh, it's everywhere," Webb, a decorated Vietnam War Marine veteran and former secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, said of the concern about the war. "You heard it in Gate City."

That is the rural southwest Virginia town known for its Republican politics where Webb started his "Operation: Take Back Virginia" tour Tuesday. He explained -- very carefully -- his opposition to the war to a group of supporters and family members, pointing to a 2002 op-ed article he wrote for The Post advising against the invasion.

"My objection to the war is not aimed at my country but at the administration that has chosen to wage this war, an administration that has muddied the truth, made mistake after mistake and refused to accept responsibility," said Webb, whose son is a Marine scheduled to be deployed to Iraq this summer. Cautious to separate his opposition to the war from his views on the military, he is wearing combat boots on the campaign trail as a show of support for his son and others who serve.

A line that Webb used in his stump speech -- "we have a lot of cleaning up to do: Number One is to end the war in Iraq" -- drew applause not only in Gate City but also in front of a battleship in Norfolk, at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond and at Courthouse Plaza in Arlington County.

But the sound bites of some candidates get less crisp when they are discussing how to end the war and when.

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