By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 14, 2006; A01
Virginia Democrats yesterday chose Vietnam War hero James Webb to challenge Sen. George Allen (R), siding with their party's national leadership, which had declared the former Republican to be the only candidate with a chance to beat Allen in November.
Webb's support from Democratic senators such as 2004 presidential nominee John F. Kerry (Mass.) swamped the textbook campaign of his opponent, former lobbyist Harris Miller, who used $1 million of his own money to question Webb's commitment to the Democratic Party's core principles.
In other primaries, Democrat Andrew Hurst, a lawyer, defeated Ken Longmyer, a retired Foreign Service officer, for the chance to run against Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R) in the Nov. 7 general election. Republican Tom O'Donoghue, a military veteran, beat Mark Ellmore, a mortgage broker, and will run against Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D).
Webb, who was outspent 3 to 1, tapped into national anger over the Iraq war and a desire among Democrats to reach out to moderates who have drifted to the Republican Party over social issues and national security. Webb captured almost two-thirds of the vote across the populous suburban counties in Northern Virginia.
"In too many cases, our leaders are not equal to the challenges they face," Webb said to a screaming crowd at the Crystal City Hilton as he accepted the nomination and promised new leadership in Washington. To Allen, he said: "I wonder, George, what leadership? It's not leadership to follow this administration blindly 97 percent of the time."
The springtime squabble between Democrats produced a near-record low turnout that a state election official described as "dismal." Polling places across Virginia reported being empty for long stretches, even though voting was open to all of the state's 4.5 million registered voters.
Webb now faces the challenge of raising millions of dollars in an attempt to oust Allen, a popular ex-governor who is considering a bid for the presidency in 2008. Allen has more than $7.5 million in the bank and a long history of winning in a state that usually votes for Republicans in federal contests.
Allen, the son of a beloved Washington Redskins coach by the same name, became a darling among conservatives as governor in the mid-1990s, when he abolished parole, toughened education standards and changed the welfare system. He left office in 1997 with strong approval ratings and beat incumbent Charles S. Robb (D) in the 2000 Senate race.
Allen's campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, said the Republicans look forward to running against a "very fractured, divided Democratic Party" and "having John Kerry . . . campaign with Mr. Webb."
But Allen is running for reelection in the midst of national frustration with congressional corruption scandals, the war in Iraq and rising gas prices. Webb vowed to make Allen answer for those issues as an insider and a Bush administration loyalist.
It was just that contrast that national Democratic leaders hoped to stoke. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Webb made a powerful connection with voters.
"He's an original, and that makes a difference to people," Schumer said after Webb's victory.
Miller campaigned on the strength of his 30-year ties to Virginia's Democratic establishment. In his concession speech just after 9 p.m., Miller congratulated Webb and promised to support the party's efforts to defeat Allen.
"Let me tell you what George Allen's worst nightmare is: a unified Democratic Party," Miller told the crowd gathered last night at the Sheraton Premiere Tysons Corner hotel. "The Democratic Party is stronger tonight because of this contest."
Webb was a halting, unpolished candidate, never having run for public office. But his résumé as a former Republican and an early critic of the Iraq war appeared to be as tantalizing to the state's rank-and-file Democrats as it was to the party's national leaders.
"I think he can give Allen a run for his money," said Harry Massey, 50, of Baileys Crossroads, who works for a trade organization in Rosslyn. "He's pro-choice. He's antiwar. And he is certainly more receptive to the downstate voters."
"Miller seems like a centrist, and that's the way Virginia Democrats can win," said Brenna Copeland, 30, who cast her ballot at the Lyon Park Community Center before heading to work.
Election officials said just over 3 percent of voters went to the polls, far less than the 16 percent who voted in the 1996 primary between Republican Sen. John W. Warner and former Reagan budget director James C. Miller III.
"I just don't understand," said Jean Jensen, secretary of the state Board of Elections. "It's dismal. It's not even very high in Fairfax County," where both candidates live.
Democrats first turned to Miller after Mark R. Warner (D) decided to build on his popularity upon leaving the governor's office to pursue the White House rather than to oppose Allen. Warner urged Miller, a longtime friend, to run.
But what initially seemed like a clear path to the nomination became muddied for Miller in February, when Webb indicated that he would take a break from his lucrative writing career to seek the nomination.
"I don't wake up in the morning wanting to be a U.S. senator," Webb said at the time. "I wake up every morning very concerned about the country. We need to put some focus back in our foreign policy, a different focus."
His decision sparked a brief but fierce fight within Virginia's Democratic Party. For three months, party traditionalists who backed Miller clashed with young and passionately antiwar bloggers, who had helped to persuade Webb to jump into the Senate race.
The contest also divided many of the state's power brokers and political leaders -- who backed Miller early -- from their counterparts at the national level, who saw in Webb a war hero with an antiwar message that would be the perfect challenge to Allen's support for Bush.
"With Jim Webb as the Democratic nominee in Virginia, we have an opportunity to give George Allen a real run for his money," Schumer said.
From the beginning, though, Miller rejected the notion that Webb was more electable.
He quickly attacked Webb's longtime association with the GOP, contending that Webb was still a Republican at heart and questioning his dedication to Democratic principles. Miller repeatedly reminded voters that Webb endorsed Allen in 2000 over Robb and backed President Bush that year as well.
"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 to Webb during a contentious debate on a Virginia Beach television show in May.
Miller also questioned Webb's commitment to traditional Democratic policies, such as affirmative action and support for women's rights. He pointed to some articles Webb has written, such as one in which Webb wrote that affirmative action has brought about "a permeating state-sponsored racism."
Webb strongly denied the contention that he opposes affirmative action, saying he supports the program for black people but takes issue with broader diversity efforts that do not offer preferential treatment for the economically disadvantaged.
Throughout the campaign, Miller was able to distribute his criticisms widely, thanks to a lead in fundraising that he never relinquished.
Webb fought back. The former Marine, who won several medals for valor during Vietnam, responded angrily during interviews and debates to the suggestion that he was not a legitimate Democrat.
Webb said he had "made a mistake" in supporting Allen and Bush in 2000 but realized it only after the Sept. 11 attacks and the decision to invade Iraq, which Webb criticized in a Washington Post opinion piece in 2002.
In the two Northern Virginia congressional primaries, the candidates also argued about who was best equipped to beat an entrenched incumbent.
Longmyer, 68, and Hurst, 36, spent much of their campaign criticizing the Bush administration. Longmyer, who has run against Davis before, said he had the experience to mount a successful campaign. Hurst said Longmyer has raised too little money in the past to be a serious challenger.
Ellmore and O'Donoghue focused their campaigns to oust Moran on border security and the need to stay the course in Iraq. Ellmore called himself the real conservative; O'Donoghue stressed his military background.
Staff writers Robert Barnes, Tim Craig, Chris L. Jenkins and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.