By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
For months, James Webb has dreaded the endless questions about his past support of Republican Sen. George Allen. But last night, after officially claiming the nomination to try to return that Virginia Senate seat to the Democratic Party, it was one of the first things Webb brought up.
"I supported George Allen six years ago because I thought he'd provide leadership," Webb told a cheering crowd in a Crystal City hotel. "I'm still waiting for the first concrete example."
With that, the man who cast his first vote for a Democratic presidential candidate only two years ago made it clear that, in the fall, he will try to turn to his advantage the positions and past alliances that dogged his primary campaign this spring.
He supported Allen and George W. Bush in 2000. He's proud of Ronald Reagan -- he was a prominent member of the administration -- and couldn't abide Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. He has questioned affirmative action and supports gun owners. But he also thinks that the war in Iraq was a mistake and that Congress is overwhelmed by special interests and doesn't do enough for the little guy. In all of these ways, he thinks he's like most Virginians.
His first appeal was to people like himself. "It's time to welcome home those Democrats who left for a time, the Reagan Democrats, the conservative Democrats, whatever labels we give them," Webb said. "It's time to welcome them home."
They may be the ones who can deliver Webb to the Senate in the fall, but they are not the ones who gave him his victory yesterday. Although Webb has portrayed himself as the candidate who will appeal to conservative voters in southwest Virginia and bring out new military supporters in the Tidewater, it was the tried-and-true Democrats from Northern Virginia who provided his margin of victory yesterday. More than 42 percent of all the votes were cast in the Washington suburbs, and Webb won an overwhelming majority of them.
It may have been the first election in which all Virginians used electronic voting machines, but some precincts could have been counting on an abacus. Voters south of the Rappahannock River largely stayed home, and the loyal Democrats who turned out there voted mostly for the loyal Democrat on the ballot, longtime party activist Harris Miller.
But in Northern Virginia, where turnout was only miserable compared with pathetic, voters appeared to listen to the plea of national Democratic leaders that Webb is the one they wanted in a fight with Allen. Jurisdiction after jurisdiction in the region gave Webb a 20-point margin.
Those national Democrats who went out on a limb for Webb -- 2004 presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and Senate Democratic campaign committee Chairman Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) chief among them -- were breathing a sigh of relief. They had tossed out the traditional neutrality that comes in a primary in the hopes that, if nothing else, Webb could keep Allen spending money to defend his seat in Virginia rather than burnish his presidential ambitions in Des Moines and Manchester, N.H.
But what Democrats have at this point is more a résumé than a candidate. On paper, the 60-year-old Webb is a Vietnam War hero who's against the war in Iraq, a Republican military specialist who has renounced his old party and brings instant national security credibility to Democrats. He's a noted author, screenwriter and journalist, beloved by the liberal blogosphere yet fluent in the language of the commonwealth's rural heart.
On the stump, he can be hesitant and uninterested in domestic policy questions. He hates the demands of fundraising -- "odious" is what he calls the process -- and it shows; he has not been very successful at it. Some find his rawness appealing while others just find it raw.
"Every candidate grows, and Jim will continue to grow," said his campaign adviser Steve Jarding, who managed Mark R. Warner's gubernatorial bid five years ago. "This is a guy that 100 days ago people thought was a Republican and 99 days ago was asking for money from people he didn't know.
"He doesn't have to worry about proving to everyone in the room now that he's a Democrat. He's been ratified."
National Democrats are still not ready to move Virginia into the top tier of races that they think will help give them a majority in the Senate.
Allen has never lost a statewide race, and he has a huge advantage in fundraising: He has raised more than $10 million. And as withdrawn and shy as Webb sometimes can be, that's just how outgoing and gregarious Allen is on the stump.
Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said at the outset of the campaign that Allen has an important political skill. "You'll see him at some event talking to someone, and he seems like there's nothing he'd rather be doing than talking to that person at that time," Kaine said.
That's not a description that would be applied to Webb as this point. But the man who made his campaign slogan "Born Fighting" shows signs of taking the battle to Allen.
"We, at the moment, have not a lot of money, a candidate who's never run for office and 2,500 rag-tag rebels who volunteered for . . . " The crowd's cheers kept Webb from finishing the sentence. "I like those odds," he finally concluded.
So Virginians will choose between the cowboy-booted Allen and the combat-booted Webb.
Showdown at Macho Gulch.