Va. Senate Race Goes Negative on 1979 Essay

James Webb, shown at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, said he was sorry if his article caused women at the Naval Academy and in the armed forces
James Webb, shown at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, said he was sorry if his article caused women at the Naval Academy and in the armed forces "undue hardship." (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)
By Michael D. Shear and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 14, 2006

RICHMOND, Sept. 13 -- Virginia's U.S. Senate race turned nasty Wednesday as Republican Sen. George Allen launched a character attack on his Democratic opponent's past views toward women in combat, signaling the start of a two-month barrage of negative campaigning in what has become a close race.

Allen, who is fighting for a second term, organized a news conference with five female U.S. Naval Academy graduates who said an article written 27 years ago by Allen's opponent, James Webb, prompted harassment by male midshipmen at the academy.

In the Washingtonian magazine article, "Women Can't Fight," the ex-Marine Webb wrote of the brutal conditions during the Vietnam War and argued against letting women into combat. Allen's campaign zeroed in on passages in which Webb described one of the academy's coed dorms as "a horny woman's dream" and said that he had never met a woman he "would trust to provide . . . combat leadership."

Linda G. Postenrieder, a 1982 Naval Academy graduate and a registered Democrat from California, said the article "infected the brigade with hate and divisive anger." Lisa Stolle, an academy graduate from Virginia Beach, said that for women, Webb's article "was like throwing gasoline" on a fire.

Webb, a Naval Academy graduate who was Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan, issued a statement saying he was sorry "to the extent that my writing subjected women at the Academy or the active Armed Forces to undue hardship."

But his campaign also responded aggressively, accusing Allen of opposing the admission of women to the Virginia Military Institute and of once having accepted membership into an exclusive club while he was governor.

The rapid-fire charges from both sides offered clues to the days leading up to the Nov. 7 election. A campaign in which both sides had been trading disagreements about energy policy and the Iraq war is quickly becoming a personal spat between a decorated war hero and a football-loving senator and former governor.

"It's probably a good time to break out the Disney tapes for the kids, because the TV ads aren't going to be pretty," said Charlie Cook, an independent political analyst who edits the Cook Political Report. "Both these guys will do whatever it takes to win. Nobody's going to hold anything back."

Already Wednesday, an independent veterans group began airing a TV commercial in some parts of Virginia accusing Allen of voting against a $1 billion amendment for high-quality body armor for troops in Iraq. In the ad, as bullets pierce a Vietnam-era flak jacket, an announcer urges voters to oust Allen. Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran from Pittsburgh, said his group is targeting Allen because "he let the troops down."

Allen's campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, said the amendment, which Allen and other GOP senators opposed, was not specifically for body armor. He called the attack "so off the charts, unfair and completely false."

In response to Webb's other charges, Allen aides pointed out that Allen declined membership in Richmond's Commonwealth Club, which admitted no women and few blacks, a few days after he initially accepted it. They also said that Democrats and Republicans had opposed coeducation at VMI before courts ordered the school to admit women. Later, aides said, Allen insisted that female cadets be treated well.

"The difference is that Jim Webb used his position to demean women who wanted to serve their country," said Chris LaCivita, a senior consultant to the Allen campaign, which set up cameras to record the news conference for a possible campaign ad.

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