Allen Uses an Island to Put Webb on the Spot

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

It's just 2,500 acres of one-time river muck.

But U.S. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) hopes Portsmouth's Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area can help sink his Democratic opponent's chances of being elected to the Senate this year.

The man-made island, located between the James and Elizabeth rivers, consists of dredged material from Hampton Roads waterways.

Virginia and federal officials want to expand the island so they can build a new cargo terminal, which they hope will boost shipping traffic into the Port of Hampton Roads. The deep-water terminal could generate 54,000 jobs and pump an additional $1.7 billion into the state's economy, officials say.

At a debate Saturday in Hot Springs, Allen surprised challenger James Webb by asking what he thought of the island, never mentioning the planned terminal. Webb, who is making his first run at office, was forced to admit he didn't know what or where it was, causing Allen to get a chuckle out of the audience when he said, "It's in Virginia."

In a debate that had few fireworks, Webb's ignorance on the issue became a key theme of news accounts of the event, particularly in the Norfolk region, where the Democrat hopes to do well Nov. 7.

Webb, a former Marine who served as secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, has based his campaign largely around his disdain for President Bush's economic policy and invasion of Iraq.

Allen strategists say the Craney Island question was a deliberate attempt to catch Webb off guard by exposing his lack of knowledge on many local issues while undercutting his support in the Hampton Roads region.

"I just think [Webb] has been so immersed in literary and cinematic fiction for so long, he really doesn't have much of a grasp of the real issues in this race," said Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams, referring to Webb's career as a novelist who also works on Hollywood movies. "I think his performance Saturday, as highlighted by this Craney Island issue, showed that."

Kristian Denny Todd, a Webb spokeswoman, said Allen was playing a game of "gotcha."

"Let's be frank. The majority of Virginians have never heard of Craney Island," Todd said. "This was a political maneuver. It had nothing to do with Jim's knowledge of Virginia issues."

But state and federal officials said yesterday that all Virginia residents should learn about the island, because their jobs may depend on it.

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