By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 8, 2006
RICHMOND, Aug. 7 -- Democratic Senate candidate James Webb will launch his first television ad Monday, a 30-second tribute by former President Ronald Reagan, for whom Webb once served as Navy secretary.
The commercial shows Reagan, a Republican, giving a speech to graduates at the Naval Academy in 1985 and praising Webb's character. It is Webb's first attempt to introduce himself broadly to Virginians as he tries to unseat incumbent Republican George Allen. The ad is running in Roanoke and Norfolk markets and on cable stations in some Northern Virginia suburbs.
"James' gallantry as a Marine officer in Vietnam won him the Navy Cross and other decorations," Reagan says. An announcer's voice continues as Reagan's image morphs into pictures of Webb as a soldier.
"Soldier. Scholar. Leader," the voice says. "Now Jim Webb is running for Senate."
The ad could appeal to moderates in both parties who remember Reagan fondly. And it could help to inoculate Webb against possible charges from Allen that Webb is a liberal who is out of touch with Virginia values. It also could make it tougher for Allen to claim that he is the true heir to Reagan's conservative philosophy.
"If [Webb] is such a big liberal, why is Ronald Reagan singing his praises? We took the one thing Allen wanted off the table," said Peter Brodnitz, Webb's pollster.
The ad suggests that Webb's financial fortune may be changing. He has trailed Allen for months in campaign fundraising, but a senior consultant to Webb's campaign said last week that fundraising has tripled since Allen called a Webb aide an offensive name last month.
It also comes amid signs that national Democrats are taking the race seriously. Two sources, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss campaign strategy, said the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has hired Mo Elleithee, a consultant who was communications director for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's campaign, to produce independent ads on behalf of Webb.
Elleithee and DSCC officials declined to comment. But the decision to bring on Elleithee suggests that Virginians may soon see more hard-hitting ads attacking Allen.
Allen began running his second television ad statewide last week. In it, Allen touts his support for education legislation that encourages innovation. Webb's ad, like Allen's, is not negative and does not mention his opponent.
The Webb ad serves almost as a posthumous endorsement from Reagan, one of the nation's most popular ex-presidents, who died in 2004. Webb's campaign said the ad is designed to appeal to Republicans, moderates and even Democrats.
"Whether you agree with Reagan or not, people thought he had leadership qualities they can respect," said Webb spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd.
Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams said Webb, who served three years as assistant secretary of defense and less than a year as Navy secretary, does not deserve Reagan's praise. Webb has supported GOP candidates in the past, including Allen in 2000.
"Jim Webb constantly criticized practically every major foreign policy and defense policy of Ronald Reagan's, and he quit after only 10 months when he didn't get his way," Wadhams said.
He also cited a book by Webb's top political consultants, Steve Jarding and Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, who wrote that Reagan was "a pompous, ignorant fool" and that "the vast bulk of Reagan's Administration was a sell-out and a sham."
"For him to wrap himself in Ronald Reagan reeks of hypocrisy," Wadhams said.
Todd responded: "Let's let Reagan speak for Reagan."
Political observers said Webb's decision to use Reagan in his first ad has risks. The ad does little to energize Webb's base of Democratic voters, who must turn out in large numbers for him to win in November. Webb was criticized during the primary against former lobbyist Harris Miller for failing to court blacks and union supporters, and an ad featuring Reagan may not appeal to those constituencies, observers said.
"It's an unusual ad for a Democrat, but in this state it'll sell," said state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), the chamber's minority leader.
Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.