Victory of the Non-Pol?

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By Lee Hockstader
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

This politics business, it's a struggle for Jim Webb.

Cerebral, private and generally solemn, he garbles sound bites and chokes at asking people for money, which the Democrat badly needs if he's to overtake Republican incumbent George Allen in the remaining seven weeks of their race for the U.S. Senate in Virginia. Wading into crowds gives him the willies. "I know how hard it is, I've had a camera three foot from my face for eight months now at any public place," he said Sunday on "Meet the Press."

On the road, the Webb campaign is unorthodox. In Arlington a few months ago, he appeared at a rally with his wife -- and was introduced to the crowd by his ex-wife. His driver, Mac McGarvey, lost an arm to a mine while serving as Webb's radio operator in Vietnam; before signing on with the campaign, he was managing a honky tonk in Nashville.

Webb's son, a Marine lance corporal who shipped out to Iraq this month, is stationed in Ramadi. If elected, Webb will be one of a tiny handful of members of Congress with a child serving in Iraq (or Afghanistan, for that matter). But while he mentions his son from time to time, and wears a pair of his son's combat boots, he seems unable or unwilling to exploit the fact of his service for all it's worth.

He is, in short, a consummate non-pol, which makes his race for the Senate among the most interesting, and treacherous, of the year. Badly underfunded so far and mostly allergic to stump speech mumbo jumbo, he could just blunder his way into the Senate on the strength of Allen's problematic past and bullying present -- and on Webb's consistent stance that the war in Iraq is a terrible strategic blunder. Or, just as easily, he could drown in the sea of Allen's financial advantage if the Democratic fundraising machine doesn't deliver in the next few weeks.

Not that it seems to matter overwhelmingly to Webb. In the scheme of things, Webb said in a debate at Tysons Corner on Monday, whether or not he is a senator won't rate very high "on my agenda."

In the Tysons debate, and the one on "Meet the Press," it wasn't hard to tell which candidate was the amateur politician. Webb's delivery was choppier, his demeanor slightly grim, his collar a size too small. At times, particularly when challenged on his views on women in the military, he seemed to delve into the dead ends of ancient debates hearkening back to his days as Ronald Reagan's secretary of the Navy a generation ago.

But there were no major gaffes either, and on balance he managed well against the more practiced, more fluent Allen. Unlike some of his earlier performances, Webb seemed prepared to discuss not only grand strategy and Iraq but also domestic policy. His advisers, convinced the campaign's momentum is with them, were thrilled.

Allen, whose national and statewide reputation has tanked since he mocked an Indian American campaign aide of Webb's by repeatedly calling him "macaca" in a nearly all-white part of southwest Virginia, is unleashing what is certain to be a nonstop negative assault on Webb.

He is in trouble not only because of the macaca remark but also because of revelations in the New Republic this year about his schoolboy romance with the Confederate flag and his own sister's depiction of the young Allen as nasty and thuggish. (It is a strange aspect of this race that Webb seems on better terms with his ex-wife than Allen does with his own sister.)

Allen has tried to square the circle of seeming moderate enough to be reelected this fall while staying conservative enough to compete in the 2008 presidential primaries. It's an impossible trick, as illustrated by his current squirm in the debate on torture, in which he cannot bring himself to side either with the White House or with fellow Virginia Sen. John Warner, whom Allen likes to call "my partner."

Although Allen is a smarter, more sophisticated candidate than Jerry W. Kilgore, the Republican who lost the race for governor of Virginia last fall, he may face a similar demographic problem in the Northern Virginia suburbs, whose wealthy, well-schooled electorate includes tens of thousands of new voters, many of them Democrats and independents.

The macaca flap has hurt him badly there, and his good-ol'-boy shtick can't help much either. At a Labor Day parade, Allen, who favors cowboy boots for daily wear, rode a horse called Bubba. And his campaign is gearing up for its 11th annual "Hoe Down" fundraiser, where contributors of $1,000 will have the title of "Buckaroo" bestowed upon them, while deeper-pocketed donors will be dubbed "Ranch Boss" and "El Ranchero Grande."

Then again, it was Webb who insisted on arguing over the candidates' southwest Virginia roots, sparking a debate-within-a-debate in Tysons over which one of them is more authentically country. ("I've been coming to southwest Virginia since George Allen was a Californian," said Webb, who has relatives there. "For me," said Allen, "it's a place in my heart, not a place on a map.")

Many of the dark-suited business types in the audience at Tysons must have been mystified. After all, most of southwest Virginia is closer to Nashville than to Northern Virginia. But if Webb's unvarnished performance convinces many voters that he is somehow the more genuine and likable of the candidates, the non-pol may just pull this race out.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address ishockstaderl@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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