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.
Allen has been on the defensive for a month, responding to criticism after calling a young Webb volunteer "Macaca" and fighting old charges of racial insensitivity. In a speech Tuesday to a black educational foundation, Allen again apologized for the comment and attempted to explain his youthful admiration of the Confederate flag.
"What I was slow to appreciate -- and wish I had understood much sooner -- is that this symbol, which for me simply stood for rebellion against authority, and for others stood for regional pride in heritage, is, for black Americans, an emblem of hate and terror, an emblem of intolerance and intimidation," Allen said.
On Wednesday, Allen's campaign went on the offensive. The five women said they were among the first to attend the Naval Academy, which began admitting women in 1976. In Webb's article, he argued women cannot physically endure combat training and military-style hazing. He also raised concerns about fraternization. "Men fight better without women around," Webb said.
"This article was brandished repeatedly. [Men] quoted and used it as an excuse to mistreat us," said Kathleen Murray, a 1984 academy graduate who rose to commander in the Navy and retired to Norfolk.
Murray said she contacted other women and urged them to discuss Webb's article after learning that he was running for the Senate. She described the group as "not partisan," though she acknowledged that Allen's campaign helped to "facilitate" their news conference.
Interviewed later, Dan Proulx, a member of the academy's Class of 1982, said that early classes of women were harassed but that he didn't think Webb's article fueled the problem: "I would say it reflected more the time and spirit of times and the debate than it caused anything."
In his statement, Webb said that his article was written "during a time of great emotional debate . . . in this country." He said he is "completely comfortable" with the role of women in the military today, which he helped achieve by increasing opportunities for women while he was Navy secretary.
Webb spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd said Allen was trying to smear Webb because the Democrat has been gaining in recent polls. "This is all they have, this kind of thing," she said. "It makes sense they would go in this direction."