By Robert Barnes
Sunday, July 23, 2006; C01
HOT SPRINGS, Va. If elections are referendums on the incumbent, debates feel like referendums on the challenger.
And so judging Democrat James Webb's performance against that of U.S. Sen. George Allen (R) hinges a lot on one's expectations.
Did he show he can stay on the same stage with Virginia's genial conservative, debating domestic and foreign policy with the commonwealth's master of the quip, a politician with a quarter-century of experience? That he did.
Did he fulfill the challenger's role of putting the incumbent on the defensive, scoring headlines and promising a furious fight to come? That he did not.
It may not be in Webb's sober makeup to aggressively confront his opponent. Webb has been a military man, lawyer, author, screenwriter and secretary of the Navy, but he has never been a politician. He hasn't even learned how to claim victory.
Asked how the debate went, Webb said: "Well, I was a boxer for eight years, and when you first walk out of the ring, you don't know which ones hit him and which ones hit you."
Allen, on the other hand, entertained reporters for a long time afterward. He said he would "leave it for others" to judge whether Webb had a sufficient handle on the issues, especially ones affecting Virginia, but then added, "He didn't really show a depth of knowledge."
The first debate between the two was about as insider and clubby as it gets: middle of summer, no live television, far from the commonwealth's population centers and in front of a collection of lawyers, journalists, consultants and political scientists. Political seasons in the state get their traditional start at these Virginia Bar Association debates, alternating annually between the luxe confines here at the Homestead resort and the Greenbrier just across the state line in West Virginia.
Webb got the crowd's attention first when he walked down the aisle with his visibly pregnant wife, Hong Le Webb; the two married last year and, in December, at 60, he'll become a father for the fifth time.
Allen's family was in tow as well, and the senator acknowledged his politically active and savvy wife several times, asking the audience in his closing remarks to "allow Susan and me to keep working for you."
Allen was full of jabs and jibes for Webb, most based on the challenger's career as a writer, screenwriter and movie producer. He said his own record was based on "fact, not fiction." At one point, he said Webb was more "Hollywood Democrat" than Reagan Democrat. And he laid a trap that Webb fell into headfirst.
In one of the two questions Allen was allowed to ask Webb, he quickly asked the Democrat's position on "Craney Island." Most of the crowd had no idea what he was talking about and, unfortunately for Webb, neither did he. He admitted as much.
As Allen began to explain the importance of expanding the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area off Portsmouth to the future of the Virginia Port Authority, Webb realized he'd been had.
"I got it," Webb said as Allen continued to lecture on the project and why it is vital to "tens of thousands of jobs." The Allen camp had refused to sign an agreement not to use footage from the debate for campaign purposes, and one immediately sensed advisers ordering television time in the Hampton Roads market.
Allen, though, didn't always seem at the top of his game. He lacked his usual delivery when he unleashed a canned line about Webb's various stints as a Democrat, then as a Republican, then back again, earning him the nickname "R2-D2." He seemed to forget what question he was answering at one point -- "Oh, the minimum wage," he finally remembered -- and he drew unintended laughter when explaining why he voted with President Bush 97 percent of the time.
"I've agreed with the president when he was right," Allen said.
Webb responded that when two people agree that much, one of them doesn't need the job.
Webb's issue so far in this race has been his opposition to the war in Iraq, and there was plenty of back and forth on that with Allen. But Webb also covered what his advisers believe might be equally fertile ground in defining differences.
He scolded Allen for voting to increase congressional pay raises four times in his six years in office while voting the same number of times against increasing the $5.15 minimum wage. He said he "can't understand" why Allen voted against lifting the ban on federal spending on embryonic stem cell research, putting him at odds with the general public as well as Republicans Nancy Reagan and John W. Warner, Virginia's other senator.
Overall, Webb presented himself as a populist in the race to defend the middle class and Allen as a member of the "corporate aristocracy," beholden to oil companies. He said he lost faith in Allen, whom he endorsed six years ago, because of a posture that he chalked up to Allen's presidential ambitions and the Republican's need to be more in tune with the "extremist" wing of his party.
Rarely has a late president been such an issue in a Senate candidate debate, but The Cowboy and The Marine continually fought over the mantle of The Gipper. Allen claims Ronald Reagan as his political inspiration; Vietnam veteran Webb served four years in Reagan's Defense Department, including 10 months as Navy secretary.
The political scientists in the crowd were still wondering how Webb, who voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 2004, could energize the traditional Democratic constituencies of African Americans, labor and liberals. So even for a Democrat promising a bipartisan, independent spirit if elected, they were surprised when he named Reagan as his favorite president.
Whatever happened to Harry Truman?