By Tim Craig and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 12, 2006; C01
James Webb walked into the Fish Market restaurant in Alexandria in December and wanted longtime Democratic strategist Steve Jarding to answer just one question: What were his chances of defeating Sen. George Allen (R), one of Virginia's most popular politicians?
"Give me a number. What are my odds?" Webb, who had never run for elective office, asked.
"I said, 'Jim, they are really low,' " Jarding recalled. Webb shot back, "Give me a number."
After Jarding said "15 percent," Webb confidently said, "If I have that much of a chance, I will take it and win."
Webb's long shot paid off last week as he unseated Allen after a bruising campaign, giving Democrats control of the Senate.
With the campaign having centered on Allen's gaffes as much as it did on Webb's views on issues, few know what to expect when the former Marine and novelist enters the nation's most exclusive club, where the art of the deal rules the day.
But Webb, a former Republican and Reagan administration official, said he might be a bit of a maverick in the Senate, which could frustrate Democratic leaders who poured more than $6 million into his campaign.
"I have my own views, and I have a lot of experiences, and I think I can bring the experiences I had to issues rather than having to read off a party briefing sheet," Webb said Friday in an interview.
Webb said he will model himself after former New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D), whom he described as someone "who had government experience that was shaped by the intellectual world."
But being a senator can be as much about politics as policy, and Webb on the campaign trail was almost the antithesis of the typical politician.
Webb was nervous in front of large crowds, couldn't understand why people wanted to shake his hand and hated asking people for money. He even turned down checks from people he didn't think could afford to give up, as he called it, "their gas money."
Until a few months ago, he would walk down the center of the street during a parade instead of zigzagging the route to shake hands. When he got tired, he refused to make fundraising calls or he took time off. That's what he did when he decided not to visit churches the Sunday before the election.
But for at least the next six years, Webb will have to be the politician and deal-maker that he never was during the campaign.
His life might become filled with ribbon-cuttings, Rotary Club dinners and town hall meetings. In Washington, the lobbyists and corporate executives he railed against during the campaign will be vying for his attention around the clock.
"He was the ultimate outside candidate," said Mark Rozell, a politics professor at George Mason University. "The trouble is, an outsider can run successful campaigns running against Washington, running against incumbents, but once elected they have to learn the task of government and taking responsibility of governing."
"Not only does he lack legislative experience, he lacks any electoral experience," Rozell said. "I think everyone will say his victory is an anti-Allen vote."
Webb's record in Washington was mixed, and he developed a reputation for being abrasive and difficult to get along with. He quit as secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration because he objected to congressional efforts to cut the Navy's budget.
But those who know him say Webb should fit in well on Capitol Hill, where he worked as a staffer during the 1970s.
"My perspective is Jim will be a much better and happier senator than senatorial candidate," said former Virginia lieutenant governor Donald S. Beyer Jr. (D). "I don't think he is a natural candidate, but he is very bright, strong-principled and apparently fearless. I think he can be a very strong voice in the Senate. He will be very comfortable working with 99 other senators to solve problems."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said Webb has "a keen intellect" and will do fine in the Senate, once he understands its frustrations.
"It will test his patience, as it does all of us," said Davis, who has known Webb since the two coached Little League games together in Fairfax County.
Webb, an early opponent of the war in Iraq, might make his mark in the Senate in foreign and military affairs. Current and former politicians said they expect him to become the face of the Democratic Party's antiwar movement.
"It will make him a very important person," said former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey (D), who had urged Webb to run. "If the question is how you structure our military for the future, he is going to come with a lot of knowledge."
Kerrey said Webb will become a magnet for senators who want him to co-sponsor their foreign-policy bills to give them credibility.
A Vietnam War hero, Webb can also be expected to take the lead on veterans issues. He will be representing a state that has among the highest percentage of veterans in the nation.
He said he immediately wants to introduce bills to give tax breaks to soldiers and educational assistance to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, similar to the World War II-era GI Bill.
As a former Republican, Webb will become a swing voter and play a role similar to that of his Senate buddies Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). Webb, Hagel and McCain, as well as Virginia Sen. John W. Warner (R), could form an important voting bloc on issues related to foreign policy, political analysts say.
Webb, however, said it would be unfair to cast him as solely a foreign policy wonk. Despite conventional wisdom that he abandoned the Republican Party because of the Iraq war, Webb said economic issues are what drove him to the Democrats.
On the campaign trail, Webb talked about the "three Americas" -- rich, poor and middle-class -- and how society was breaking down over "class lines." Webb, who vows to never change what he believes for a "dollar or a vote," said he wants to close corporate tax loopholes and pay closer attention to escalating salaries for chief executives.
Webb also has an affinity for the labor movement, even though Virginia is a right-to-work state. He plans to push to raise the minimum wage and said that "organized labor is very important because everyone needs an agent."
Webb might also try to steer federal dollars into southwest Virginia, where his ancestors settled. Speaking to coal miners last weekend in Grundy, Webb said, "You have given your loyalty, and you will have my loyalty, and I will work to bring fairness back to the economic system."
Voters also should prepare for Webb's libertarian views on such issues as his support for abortion and gun rights and concern about some of President Bush's tactics in the war on terrorism, including the domestic wiretapping program.
"Government does not belong in people's private lives unless there is a compelling reason," Webb said.
Despite a desire to be portrayed as independent, Webb plans to become engaged with the state's Democratic Party. He said he plans to start helping Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) with his effort to elect more Democrats to the General Assembly next year.
"I want to do what I can to bring people back into the party," Webb said.
Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) said it would be a mistake for Webb to conclude that his victory Tuesday was a mandate.
"If he goes in tooting in there and jumps on the Hillary Clinton agenda, he'll be a one-term senator," Lingamfelter said. "Virginians won't take it."
Webb said he understands that he beat Allen by less than 10,000 votes and that, in fact, he might not have won if Allen had not made a last-minute attack on sex-laced passages in his novels.
Allen's attack, 10 days before the election, appeared to take a toll on Webb's staffers, who began doing yoga in the hallways of his campaign headquarters to calm their nerves. But Webb said the accusations, which appeared on the Drudge Report Web site and then in newspapers and on television, backfired.
"I got 170,000 hits on my Web site in 24 hours," Webb said. "That is when I said, 'I think I am going to win.' "