VIRGINIA SENATE RACE

For Miller, the Road to the Primary Goes Door-to-Door

Harris Miller, left, and primary rival James Webb, right, talk with Norfolk TV host Joel Rubin before a debate.
Harris Miller, left, and primary rival James Webb, right, talk with Norfolk TV host Joel Rubin before a debate. (By Gary C. Knapp -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 1, 2006

PORTSMOUTH, Va. -- Senate candidate Harris Miller squeezed his eyes shut, joined hands and lowered his head as preacher Eli Ruffin offered a blessing for Miller's campaign to unseat Republican Sen. George Allen.

"Bless this candidacy, Lord God," Ruffin started. The hot sun beat down as Ruffin, 60, led the impromptu prayer circle in his neighbor's front yard, where a few minutes earlier he happened upon Miller knocking on doors, looking for Democratic votes.

"Bless and keep Mr. Miller, Lord God. Bless his family," Ruffin said. "Bless this great state, Lord God, and this greater country that we live in. For it's in Jesus's name we pray. Amen."

"Amen," Miller said, accepting Ruffin's invitation to attend Sunday services at St. Marks Missionary Baptist Church in Portsmouth. "I'm honored, sir. I'm honored. Thank you very much."

Such are the moments that campaigns pray for, when a chance meeting with a voter turns into something more.

As Miller, 54, campaigns for the Democratic nomination against former Reagan administration Navy secretary James Webb, he is searching for every Democrat he can find. In a race that is likely to draw just 2 or 3 percent of registered voters, a few hundred could decide the winner June 13.

While Webb tries to woo Democrats with national backing, an antiwar message and an unconventional manner, Miller has hopped onto the tried-and-true Virginia campaign circuit, hoping to attract supporters one breakfast, one festival or even one neighborhood street at a time.

It was the latter that brought Miller and his college-age daughter, Alexis, to the Portsmouth community of Truxton on Saturday, and in particular to Hobson Street, where they met Ruffin.

A poor, mostly black neighborhood, Truxton is reliably Democratic and is fertile ground for Miller, who has criticized Webb for not supporting affirmative action. On Tuesday, Webb received the endorsement of Donald S. McEachin, a black state lawmaker who said such criticism is unfair.

People in Truxton had not heard about that dispute, however. Most people in Truxton said they didn't even know an election was coming up.

"I haven't followed it. I will now," said Renae Richardson, 54, who lives across from Ruffin and said she has never seen a candidate walk along her street. "This is the first time, and I've lived here all my life. I liked what he had to say."

In his pitch, Miller never mentions Webb. Instead, the former Fairfax County Democratic chairman focuses on his differences with Allen and his credentials in the party. He never fails to say he is "close" to former governor Mark R. Warner and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, neither of whom has endorsed a candidate in the primary.


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