Webb Is Reluctant To Advertise Duty

By Michael D. Shear and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Virginia Democratic Senate candidate James Webb, who was critically wounded as a Marine in Vietnam, said yesterday that he is uncomfortable talking about his personal story even if doing so could help him unseat Republican Sen. George Allen on Nov. 7.

In an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors, Webb also said he is offended by Allen's repeated mentions of the death of a constituent's son in Iraq. Allen often tells audiences that dog tags from the dead soldier hang from his dresser mirror.

Webb, who has a son serving in Iraq, said he has disagreed with advice from his aides and others who have told him that voters get to know candidates through their personal stories. Although the race is close, polls show that Virginians know more about Allen than Webb. But Webb said it is improper to use military service in an overtly political way.

"I don't think it's right to use somebody's service directly for a political reason," Webb said. "When [Allen] talks about the validity of the effort in terms of an individual who was killed in Iraq, I think that's wrong. Too many people have too many different feelings about why they serve."

Since entering the Senate race in February, Webb has attempted to reveal aspects of his life. He is a decorated veteran, a former Navy secretary and a prolific author. Despite making his opposition to the Iraq war the centerpiece of his campaign, most of Webb's commercials make no mention of his military experience, and his reluctance to dwell on that past has frustrated his supporters. Though he wears combat boots to honor his Marine son Jimmy, Webb rarely talks about his son.

"I get that [advice] all the time," Webb said. That "I should go more into my personal biography and all of that. You can't go beyond your own comfort zone on things."

Rhonda Winfield of Stuarts Draft, Va., who gave Allen her son Jason's dog tags, said in an interview yesterday she was outraged that Webb would criticize Allen for mentioning him. She said she gave Allen the dog tags after he wrote a personal note upon her son's death. She said she has encouraged Allen to talk about Jason.

"He is my voice in a way I cannot be," she said, adding that the dog tags are a "reminder that these are real people. They are not just figures. They are not just numbers. They are real, American lives."

Allen consultant Chris LaCivita, himself a Marine veteran, said: "So you mean to tell me that there's something wrong with keeping the memory of someone's loved one alive? Quite frankly, I'm aghast that he would say that."

Webb's comments came during an hour-long interview in which he reiterated his desire to serve in the Senate. Allen declined a similar invitation.

But the Republican-turned-Democrat expressed little love for the process required to be elected. Although his campaign advisers and ads have hammered Allen's personal ethics, Webb has often frustrated advisers by refusing to attack Allen personally. Webb said he is uneasy making that case for his candidacy.

"This is not personal, for me, it's not personal," he stressed.

With three weeks left until Election Day, Allen and Webb have stepped up their activity, meeting with groups across the state and airing millions of dollars worth of commercials.

Yesterday, Webb continued to respond to accusations by Allen that he demeaned military women in a 1979 Washingtonian magazine article opposing women fighting in combat on the front lines.

"It's a Karl Rove campaign," Webb told Post editors, citing a series of Allen ads featuring female Naval Academy graduates who say they were harassed after Webb's article appeared. Rove is President Bush's chief political adviser.

Those ads have apparently helped. A Washington Post poll shows Webb struggling with support among women compared with previous Democrats such as Gov. Timothy M. Kaine. In the survey, 49 percent of the women polled say they would vote for Allen, compared with 47 percent for Webb.

At a news conference yesterday, Webb picked up the endorsement of several high-ranking retired female military officers who praised his efforts as Navy secretary to produce more opportunities for women.

"I think Senator Allen's commercials are bogus," said retired Navy Capt. Barbara Brehm, who noted that Webb allowed women to serve on 26 ships that previously had been off-limits. "You judge a person on what they have done."

Several of the women said Webb was simply expressing the views of most men in the military at that time. "When I was in the Special Forces, I can tell you, when they speak of Jim's article, believe me, the men were disgruntled by having us in the military. It was a tumultuous time," said retired Col. Kate Wilder, who says she was the only woman ever to serve as a Green Beret. "But it wasn't yesterday. It was 30 years ago. Life moves on."

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