A Different Sort of Memorial Day for Webb
In a Fight for Democratic Nomination, Former Marine Pays His Respects, Engages in Politics

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006

James Webb's Monday began as almost every morning begins these days: He laced up his combat boots and climbed into the passenger seat of a camo-painted Jeep.

A sense of the military is ever-present in Webb's U.S. Senate campaign, where 2002 is pronounced "twenty-oh-two" and his traveling companions are two fellow former Marines. This Memorial Day, a special day for a man whose family legacy is military service, would be unlike any other in his 60 years.

He encouraged his campaign volunteers, who praised him. He shyly walked a parade route as crowds politely applauded him. He auditioned for a skeptical pair of Democratic voters, who interrogated him. And -- this one stung a little -- he met a veteran, who rebuked him. It was another day of lessons for Webb, a war hero-Navy secretary-lawyer-journalist-author- screenwriter-businessman trying on a new role: politician.

The education has come on the fly for Webb, who waited until February before officially deciding to take on Fairfax County lobbyist and longtime Democratic insider Harris Miller in the June 13 primary. The winner will face Sen. George Allen (R) as he seeks a second term.

"We started late," he told volunteers at his Arlington headquarters. "We've been doing basically two years of work in a few months, which has made it enormously hard to get out everything that we want to do."

Webb dressed for the day in a checked shirt, Banana Republic khakis, a baseball cap with an American flag emblem and the boots, which he says he wears in tribute to his son, a Marine who is set to be in Iraq by September. He stood in front of an American flag and rallied his troops with, yes, military history.

Five of his ancestors, he said, fought in the American Revolution battle of King's Mountain, where the British troops stuck to traditional warfare of the time and the colonials were allowed to make their own decisions. "And they went out there, and they surrounded them, and they kicked the living tar out of the British," he said. "And that's basically what we're going to have to do here. Every one of you really is your own officer. We've got two weeks to put it together and do it."

Many of those volunteers turned up later on a sweltering street in Falls Church for the town's annual parade; the Webb contingent had more than 75 supporters, two convertibles, Arlington Commissioner of Revenue Ingrid H. Morroy on bullhorn and a somewhat reluctant-looking candidate.

"All right, what do you want me to do?" Webb asked.

He walked right down the middle of the street for the first part of the parade, smiling but neither waving nor shaking hands with the folks gathered on the curb. He eventually got into the swing of it, moving from one side of the street to the other, with Morroy leading the supporters in chants.

"Women for Webb!"

"Unions for Webb!"

"How about white men for Webb?" one supporter asked.

"Bubbas for Webb!" she responded.

Next stop: Viva! Vienna! -- a collection of vendors, carnival rides and food stalls in the heart of the town and a magnet for politicians. There he met Phil Calkins of Vienna and Frankie Gibson of Oakland, two Democratic voters who had questions and reservations.

"The only thing I really know about him is that he served in the Reagan administration," Calkins said -- and that was not a plus from his point of view.

"The strong issue for me coming out of the Vietnam War was national defense," said Webb, who explained that he agreed more with the Republicans about that. But he said he has voted for Democrats and Republicans and pointed out that a number of Democratic senators, including Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), support him.

He sketched out stands he thought would help -- "I spoke out against the Iraq War long before it started; I'm pro-choice; I support gay rights" -- and something he figured wouldn't help -- "I am a Second Amendment guy" supporting gun rights. "I'm a realist on foreign policy," he told them, "a populist on economic issues."

Calkins and Gibson weren't quite sure what to do with that information, although they brought up the idea that the Webb campaign most wants to promote: that he is the Democrat with the best chance of defeating Allen.

Veterans are usually what Webb's Memorial Days are about. At the end of a television interview about the campaign that day, when asked whether he had anything else to add, Webb replied: "It's Memorial Day. Go visit a grave."

That's what he had done earlier in the day at Arlington National Cemetery. Webb says he visits Arlington every year on Memorial Day. But on Monday, he rode through the hills in a Jeep emblazoned with his name and campaign slogan -- "Born Fighting" -- trailed by two reporters. He got a lot of looks, and then a man approached him.

"Are you Jim Webb?'' the man asked.

I am, Webb answered.

"Cheap political stunt," the man said and turned to walk away.

The man's name is Fred Hoffman, and he and Webb served under Caspar W. Weinberger when he was defense secretary. Hoffman, who volunteers at Arlington, said in an interview later that "that vehicle caught my eye." When he saw Webb talking to reporters, "it struck me that he was trying to gain a political advantage on this day."

Webb's staff members pointed out that they would rather have had him at a campaign event than at Arlington Cemetery, and Webb said he refused to answer questions about politics while he was there.

"People are going to think whatever they think," he said. "It is what it is. I know what I care about."

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