Pair Prod Voter Turnout In What May Be a Tossup

By Robert Barnes and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 11, 2006

The campaign has drawn an election-year creature so exotic that the media flock to see him and national political leaders cast aside tradition to embrace him: a Republican war hero who has chosen to run as an antiwar Democrat in a conservative state.

But in the end, the tiny sliver of Virginia Democrats who are likely to go to the polls Tuesday to select a nominee for the U.S. Senate may turn to a much more common species: an insider who has labored for his party for years and spent nearly $1 million of his own money to construct a traditional, textbook campaign.

The battle between James Webb, the Reagan administration official and best-selling author waging his first political campaign, and Harris Miller, the high-tech lobbyist who has supported other Virginia Democratic candidates for decades, has so split the party that even the most prescient of politicians aren't sure what to expect.

"I wouldn't bet 25 cents on who I thought might win," said Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).

Election officials across the state predict minuscule turnout for the effort to find a challenger for Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), saying that 3 to 5 percent of registered voters are likely to cast ballots. "Unfortunately, it's a lot of work, and not very many people are interested in it this time," said Judy Brown, general registrar for Loudoun County.

Miller and Webb spent yesterday in the Hampton Roads region, looking to increase turnout among their supporters in areas heavy with African Americans and military veterans. And in populous Northern Virginia, where both sides said the election could be decided, their campaigns continued to churn.

At Celebrate Fairfax! -- a fair held on the grounds of the county government center -- volunteers for both campaigns battled for voters' attention. Miller volunteers passed out copies of an editorial endorsement, while Webb supporters distributed a magazine article praising their candidate.

"I haven't given it much thought, to tell you the truth," said Fran McLaughlin of Falls Church. "I haven't decided yet."

Those who do show up will determine who gets the chance at a still-uphill race against Allen, who is also considering a presidential bid in 2008. But the outcome could also offer lessons about party loyalty, the viability of celebrity-based campaigns and whether Democrats are willing to overlook past partisan impurity in hopes of broadening the party's appeal.

Webb, who served as Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, is asking Democrats to forgive his decades-long stint as a Republican and his endorsements of Allen and George W. Bush for the 2000 election. Those were mistakes, he said, before he became angry about the Iraq war and returned to the Democratic fold.

Now he promises a populist message that aims to appeal to rural, conservative voters Democrats traditionally can't reach. And he offers a powerful image for the party's liberal wing: an ex-military man who wears his son's combat boots to symbolize all that has gone wrong in Iraq. It is that single issue -- the war -- with which he hopes to drag Allen down.

Short on money, Webb has turned for help to national Democrats, who have become convinced that his celebrity and personality are the better match against Allen's incumbency and his multimillion-dollar campaign fund.

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