By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006
NORFOLK, May 19 -- The two men vying for the Democratic nomination in Virginia's U.S. Senate race angrily accused each other of being disloyal to their party in a bitter exchange Friday during their first face-to-face meeting of the primary campaign.
Former lobbyist Harris Miller and former Navy secretary James Webb clashed during the taping of what was billed as a casual conversation for "On the Record," a Norfolk television show that will air Sunday morning. The exchange started calmly, with both taking potshots at the man each wants to face in the fall, incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen.
But the conversation quickly turned nasty, with Miller questioning Webb's partisan "values" and Webb noting that Miller had been called by some people "the antichrist of outsourcing." It ended at an impromptu news conference after the taping, with a visibly frustrated Webb telling Miller to "shut your mouth."
The antipathy that had until Friday been reserved for news releases and quiet remarks by campaign aides became personal slams moments into the taping as Miller questioned Webb's support for Republicans during the 2000 election.
"When we were fighting in the trenches to defeat George Bush and George Allen in 2000, you weren't just voting for them, you were endorsing them," Miller said, ignoring the question of the show's host, Joel Rubin.
Webb quickly accused Miller of making inappropriate campaign contributions to senior Republicans in the Congress.
"Why did you donate money to [U.S. House of Representatives Speaker] Dennis Hastert? I've never given money to a Republican in my life," Webb said.
Miller acknowledged giving several thousand dollars to Hastert and Spencer Abraham, a former U.S. senator who lost his reelection bid in 2000 and went on to serve as energy secretary during Bush's first term. He told reporters later that the board of directors of the Information Technology Association of America, where he was the chief lobbyist at the time, strongly urged him to contribute to Republican candidates.
"They said I had to be bipartisan in my giving," Miller said of his former employer. "Two or three, I can't remember, board members said to me on separate occasions, 'Harris, you were very visible supporting the Democratic candidates in the 2000 election. This is a bipartisan organization. We would suggest very strongly that you try to be more bipartisan in your personal giving.' "
Webb's campaign later pounced on those comments, saying it was an excuse for contributing to Republicans that only a former lobbyist could love.
"Right there you've got what the American public hates about Washington," said Webb spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd. "This is the problem with Harris Miller. This is how he thinks, how lobbyists think."
Miller's campaign called that ridiculous.
"No one can legitimately question Harris Miller's 30-year commitment to and work for Democratic candidates," Miller spokeswoman Taylor West said. "Too many people still have questions about Jim Webb's commitment. He is desperate to deflect those questions about his continued support for Republican positions."
Rubin, whose show airs on WVEC Channel 13 at 10:30 a.m., said the exchange was more testy than he had expected.
"Obviously, it's a sore point with the two campaigns as to who's the better Democrat," Rubin said.
The two expressed differing views on other subjects as well: Webb expressed support for nuclear power, whereas Miller opposed it; and Miller again called for the firing of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, something that Webb again declined to do.
But the exchanges between the two were dominated by questions about what it means to be a Democrat in Virginia.
Miller repeatedly pointed out that Webb -- who admits to being a Republican until 2002 -- endorsed Allen in 2000, when the former governor successfully challenged Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb.
He said that Webb had even attacked Robb. Miller explained later that he was referring to Webb's comments that Robb was complicit in a corrupt Bill Clinton presidency.
"I welcome Jim Webb into the Democratic Party. What I'm asking is, what are the values he supports?" Miller told reporters.
Asked later whether he thought Webb is a legitimate Democrat, Miller said that "when you welcome someone to the church, you don't necessarily invite them to be the choir director the next day."
Webb said he "made a mistake" in 2000 by supporting Bush and Allen, and he said he has apologized personally to Robb for that. He cited support from some former Robb aides as evidence that it should no longer be an issue.
Several times, Webb accused Miller of not supporting American workers by lobbying for the outsourcing of jobs and noted that several union officials have criticized Miller for advocating that visas be granted to foreign citizens to take jobs in the United States. Miller said that advocacy was done on behalf of the technology association.
Asked whether he would support Webb against Allen in the general election if Webb wins, Miller said that he would. "That's what Democrats do," the former Fairfax County party chairman said.
When Webb was asked the same question, he said, "I have no personal animosities here. None."
Miller jumped in. "Well, why don't you answer the question? You going to support me if you don't win the primary?"
"Harris, if you shut your mouth I'll answer the question," Webb said, then added curtly: "If you win, I will support you."
"Thank you," Miller said.
"You're welcome," Webb said.