Allen, Webb Quarrel Over War in Iraq, Bush Policies

By Michael D. Shear and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 18, 2006

Virginia's U.S. Senate candidates clashed on national television yesterday over the war in Iraq and President Bush's leadership, offering the sharpest contrast yet in a campaign that has become central to the partisan struggle for control of Congress this fall.

Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Republican Sen. George Allen and Democratic challenger James Webb also confronted issues of race and gender and debated the use of torture in the war on terror. But the exchange largely centered on a controversial war that has become the defining issue of the Nov. 7 midterm elections.

Webb, a decorated Marine and former Navy Secretary, called the Iraq war an "incredible strategic blunder of historic proportions" and said he has lost confidence in Bush's foreign policy. He repeatedly reminded viewers that neither Bush nor Allen, a former governor, had served in combat.

"Very few people who have brought us this war have served, and very, very few of the children of these people who have brought us this war have served," said Webb, whose Marine son began a tour in Iraq this month.

Allen steadfastly defended Bush's Middle East policies, telling moderator Tim Russert that "staying the course" in Iraq means "that we don't tuck tail and run, that we don't retreat, that we don't surrender." Asked whether more U.S. troops should be sent, Allen said, "We're going to need to do what it takes to succeed."

The outcome of Virginia's contest could be critical to GOP hopes of retaining control of the Senate in a year when anger toward incumbents -- fueled in part by the Iraq war -- is tangible.

Webb, a former Republican and early critic of the war, was persuaded to challenge Allen by national Democrats and activists who believed his military background would make him the ideal candidate to tap into antiwar sentiment.

But questions about character -- including Allen's comment to a Webb campaign volunteer and allegations about Webb's view of women in combat -- have dominated a race that polls indicate has tightened.

Russert devoted his entire Sunday show to the Virginia debate and focused nearly a half-hour on the Iraq war. He grilled Allen repeatedly on the vote he and other lawmakers made authorizing the president to go to war.

"If you knew Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, was it still worth going to war?" Russert asked.

"I stand by my vote," Allen said. "We had a choice whether to listen to the critics and do nothing and then have this world more dangerous if we were right."

Russert asked both candidates whether the $300 billion spent on the war in Iraq could have been better spent on homeland security and the war on terror.

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