By Michael D. Shear and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 4, 2006
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton endorsed Democratic Senate candidate James Webb yesterday as he and Republican Sen. George Allen intensified their efforts to woo female voters in the Virginia campaign's closing month.
The high profile appearance by Clinton (D-N.Y.) at a fundraising lunch in Old Town Alexandria provided a needed boost to Webb, whom Allen has criticized for his past attitude toward women in the military.
While the former first lady was announcing her support for Webb, Allen was attending a similar function in Fredericksburg held by his wife, Susan, and Cecelia Howell, the wife of House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford).
The Senate candidates' views toward women have become a central character issue of the campaign. Allen, who has had problems with questions about his racial sensitivity, has sought to shift attention to Webb's opposition 27 years ago to women in combat.
Allen is running an expensive statewide television advertising campaign featuring three female graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy complaining about remarks Webb wrote in a 1979 magazine article, "Women Can't Fight." Webb, a former Marine and secretary of the Navy, began airing an ad yesterday with a female academy graduate rebutting the allegations.
Echoing the theme of Webb's ad, Clinton told reporters: "I've watched and analyzed what Jim Webb has done when he was in the Pentagon, opening up positions -- thousands of them -- to women when previously they had not been available. We have women serving with valor and distinction because the battlefield has changed."
A day after paying for a two-minute TV commercial calling for the campaign to focus on political issues instead of character issues, Allen said at the Fredericksburg luncheon that his Webb commercials are about "respect for women." His campaign vowed to continue attacking what they say is the Democrat's biggest vulnerability.
"That article from 1979 gives an insight into the core of James Webb that is not going to go away and is going to cut deeply," Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams said. He said the Democrats have "gone into a defensive posture, trying to blunt the criticism about Webb's disrespect of women."
Webb has said he was not wrong for participating in a national debate in the late 1970s about whether women should serve in the military. He has said he is "fully comfortable with the roles of women in the military today."
The most recent polls show the Allen-Webb race tied. Advisers for both camps said the winner Nov. 7 could be the candidate with an advantage among women, who account for 3.7 million, or slightly more than half, of Virginia's population.
Female voters helped Timothy M. Kaine (D) beat former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R) last year in the governor's race after Kaine offered messages about preschool, traffic and faith that were tailored specifically for church-going women in the suburbs.
Nationally, both parties have spent millions courting "soccer moms" and "security moms," mothers worried about terrorism and security issues.
"It's the same group. It's moderate to conservative women who are perhaps not so consumed with the political process because they have lives to live," said Democratic pollster Pete Brodnitz, who worked for Kaine last year and is now on Webb's team. "They are making their decision a bit later. There's a lot of effort expended on both sides to talk to women."
Allen aides said they will continue to seek advantage among that group by hammering Webb for his past views, which included highly-charged language to describe women at the Naval Academy. Wadhams said they will also continue to showcase Allen's wife, who was a popular first lady when Allen was governor.
"We have a very strong opportunity to appeal to women voters, and I think that's a significant part of the debate," Wadhams said.
Webb campaign manager Steve Jarding dismissed Allen's appeal to women, noting that the senator opposes abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research -- two issues that Jarding said put Allen at odds with most women in Virginia.
"This is not a champion of women's issues," Jarding said of the senator. "The Allen campaign knows that." One of the Naval Academy graduates who initially joined Allen in criticizing Webb has now accepted his apology and endorsed the Democrat.
Clinton, who raised about $75,000 for Webb, praised him as a decisive leader who would stand up to the Bush administration. She said it was important to "replace subservient Republicans who are unwilling to ask the hard questions with Democrats like Jim Webb, who will."
Webb once called President Bill Clinton's administration the most "corrupt" in history. He has said his animosity was fueled by Clinton's attempts to get out of serving in Vietnam, where Webb was wounded and received several medals and commendations.
As for his support of women, Webb said yesterday that "probably the most important thing I can say about that entire issue is that there's a term in law, res ipsa loquitur , the thing speaks for itself"; he then introduced his top campaign staff members, five of whom are women.
Allen spoke yesterday to about 50 women in Howell's backyard in Fredericksburg. Several of the women there wore buttons proclaiming "Vote for Susan Allen's Husband."
The senator said he has been a leader in efforts to get more women interested in pursuing careers in math and science. Allen also talked about keeping taxes low and winning the war in Iraq.
When Susan Allen was asked whether she agreed with her husband's opposition to abortion rights, she said: "Labels are not necessarily a good thing. I believe George's record looking at that particular issue is excellent. He's represented Virginia values."
Staff writer Robert Barnes contributed to this report.