By Robert Barnes Michael D. Shear
Sunday, May 14, 2006
Virginia's Democratic Senate candidates are pursuing strikingly different paths to their showdown next month, with James Webb counting on a string of national endorsements to erase doubts about his Democratic credentials and Harris Miller courting the kind of local activists sure to turn out for the state's unpredictable primary.
Both sides are depending heavily on endorsements to define their still unfamiliar candidacies: Webb convincing the national Democratic leadership that he offers the best chance to defeat Republican Sen. George Allen, and Miller calling in chits among party activists with whom he has served for decades to show he represents the constituencies necessary for Democrats to win in the fall.
With less than a month remaining before the June 13 primary, neither candidate has the inclination -- or the money -- to fund the kind of traditional media blitz that fills the election season. Although all Virginia voters are eligible to vote in the primary, the highest recent turnout for a Democratic election is less than 10 percent, and the Webb camp estimates that as few as 125,000 voters might decide the contest.
Whatever their strategy, both sides expect the endorsements -- "verifiers" is the word used by Webb strategist Steve Jarding -- to play an important role.
"It's a 100-day campaign, essentially, not a 12-month campaign," Jarding said, noting that Webb did not officially enter the race until March. "I don't have a lot of time to get to know either one of these guys, if I'm a voter. So they're going to get to know them through people they trust, who can verify them."
To that end, Webb's past two weeks have been about as good as a Democratic candidate could hope for, especially a former Reagan administration official who endorsed Allen six years ago.
His highly honored Marine background and his out-front opposition to the war in Iraq were amplified by support from the retired generals who have recently gone public with their criticism of the way the Bush administration has handled the war.
A trade union, one of the Democratic Party's most steadfast constituencies, endorsed Webb and had sharp words for Miller. "If I'm one of the union households in the state, that tells me something," Jarding said.
Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid of Nevada and six other current and former senators, including former Democratic National Committee chairman Christopher J. Dodd, a senator from Connecticut, broke the usual primary neutrality to offer their support. And on Friday, Webb had a private meeting with the party's 2004 presidential nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry.
Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota signaled the party's interest in Webb's unorthodox candidacy, calling him a "unique candidate who can both clearly articulate Democratic values and compel voters across all demographics to vote Democrat."
Perhaps most important for Webb, former Virginia governor and potential presidential contender Mark R. Warner spoke on Webb's behalf at a high-dollar, well-attended event in Arlington on Thursday night. Warner had attended a fundraiser for Miller this spring, and his wife, Lisa Collis, has given Miller the maximum campaign contribution.
"In Jim Webb, we have somebody who's not afraid to take on a fight," Warner said. Delivering a political blessing, he declared Webb "someone willing to take this fight to all the people of Virginia . . . a great American, a great Virginia Democrat."
"I think the fact that [Warner] did this dispelled a lot of the sort of under-the-waterline comments that he had in fact endorsed Harris Miller," Webb said later. "He hasn't endorsed anyone, but the words that he used I think help us.
"The two biggest questions for me in terms of announcing for the Senate were whether the Democratic Party would support me and whether we have the right kind of credibility to win in November," Webb said. The endorsements of the national Democrats and others from around the state resolve "the first question and give us credibility on the second," he said.
Virginia House Democratic Caucus Chairman Brian J. Moran of Alexandria, who has not endorsed a candidate, said the race "will be a test of whether the national prominence of Webb and his opposition to the war overcomes a familiar Democrat like Harris Miller."
Thus, while Webb and Warner were atop an Arlington high-rise with stunning views of Washington's monuments, Miller was in the basement of P.J. Skidoos, a Fairfax City pub where the tiny Fairfax City Democratic Committee was holding its annual dinner.
Before his five-minute speech, Miller dismissed concerns about Webb's flashy support from national figures. None of them are likely to help with phone calls, or send postcards to voters, or offer lists of voter e-mail addresses, or march door-to-door in the final days of the primary campaign, he said.
"It's no disrespect to the senators. I look forward to working with them in the Senate," he said. "At the end of the day, they don't vote in Virginia, and they don't have a grass-roots network in Virginia."
Miller has received none of the national attention heaped on Webb, relying instead on building a network of supporters among the local Virginia officials he has befriended during more than two decades as a party activist.
Miller rolled out endorsements from seven current and former members of the General Assembly last week, and his advisers say local officials are furnishing the campaign with the nuts-and-bolts machinery that they hope will enable him to win next month, including the names of thousands of Democrats who have braved the June heat to vote for those officials in past primaries.
"The people who know Virginia, who know the Virginia electorate, who win in Virginia are lining up behind Harris," said Miller spokeswoman Taylor West. "We are thrilled to have the help and support of those who do have those existing relationships."
Last weekend, Webb held three fundraisers in Hollywood, attended by movie studio executives he met during his work as a scriptwriter and by at least one famous actor, Virginia native Warren Beatty. Miller said he attended 11 events across Northern Virginia, and he responded to the attention Webb is receiving with a sentiment that is becoming familiar.
"I know Warren was born in Arlington, but I don't know that he votes here anymore," Miller said.