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U.S. SENATE RACE

Webb Gains Backing of Several Key Democrats

James Webb, center, talks with Steve Brooks, left, Robert Gillenwater and Joe Bagley during a campaign stop in Weber City, Va., last month. Webb is opposed by Harris Miller for the Senate nomination.
James Webb, center, talks with Steve Brooks, left, Robert Gillenwater and Joe Bagley during a campaign stop in Weber City, Va., last month. Webb is opposed by Harris Miller for the Senate nomination. (By Dave Grace -- Associated Press)

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By Michael D. Shear and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 11, 2006

Senate Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid and other top Democrats yesterday announced their support for Senate candidate James Webb, signaling the national party's growing belief that the antiwar crusader and former Navy secretary is the party's best bet against Republican incumbent George Allen in Virginia.

Webb is fighting for the Democratic nomination against former technology lobbyist Harris Miller in the June 13 primary, the kind of race that national party officials usually stay out of. But Webb, a former Republican and an early critic of the Iraq war, is attracting national attention as someone who could spoil Allen's plans for an easy reelection in November and a presidential bid in 2008.

"He is a unique candidate who can both clearly articulate Democratic values and compel voters across all demographics to vote Democrat," Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) said in a statement.

The difference between Webb, who is making his first venture into Virginia Democratic politics, and Miller, a party loyalist who for six years headed the Fairfax County Democrats, has been crystallized in recent endorsement announcements.

Webb's new supporters include Reid, whose political action committee gave Webb $5,000; Sens. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), Ken Salazar (Colo.) and Johnson; and former senators Thomas A. Daschle and Max Cleland.

Last week, Webb announced support from several of the retired generals who have criticized the Bush administration for the conduct of the war and have called for Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign. He also drew the support of Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), the Vietnam veteran who has become a hero to Democratic antiwar activists for his call for removal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

In a statement yesterday, Webb said support from the senators "demonstrates that our message can unify Democrats and expand the party. . . . I look forward to beating George Allen and working with them in the Senate."

Miller, whose candidacy got off the ground first, is better funded and more connected to the state's Democratic establishment.

In the last several weeks, Miller has been endorsed by dozens of local elected leaders. This week, he won support from three Northern Virginia delegates -- Adam P. Ebbin (Alexandria), Robert H. Brink (Arlington) and Mark D. Sickles (Fairfax) -- as well as an African American state senator from Hampton and a former delegate on the state's Northern Neck. Endorsements from two more state lawmakers are expected today.

"Harris has a lot of respect for the work that these guys do," spokeswoman Taylor West said of the senators who offered support for Webb. "We are focusing this campaign on Virginia and the people who can actually vote in the Democratic primary in Virginia."

National Democratic leaders in recent weeks have become more talkative about their chances in Virginia. Reid said in a TV interview over the weekend that the commonwealth has been added to the list of states the party could win. And Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told reporters, "You might find Cinderella down the road in Virginia."

"We think under reasonable circumstances it is a winnable state," he added.

Yesterday's endorsements indicate that the reason for the optimism is a belief that Webb, with a mix of military achievement, support in southwestern Virginia and early opposition to the war in Iraq, matches up well against Allen.

But the senators are cautious about involvement in the primary. Schumer said his committee would not be "mixing in the primary," and Reid's office went out of its way to play down his support.

His spokeswoman, Rebecca Kirszner, said "Senator Reid was impressed with Webb and gave a contribution." But she added that "this is not a formal endorsement."

A source close to Reid, who declined to speak for attribution about the senator's motivations, said the Democratic leader and the other senior party members want Webb to succeed but are wary of being dragged into the middle of the party's other primaries across the country.

"This is a tightrope for these guys," the source said.

Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams declined to draw much of a distinction between Webb and Miller as a potential opponent and said any recent developments have not changed the dynamics of the race.

Chris Cillizza of washingtonpost.com contributed to this report.


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