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Va.'s Webb Offers a Blunt Challenge to Bush

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007; A12

Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) delivered a forceful nine-minute response to President Bush's State of the Union address last night, promising an aggressive challenge to Bush's Iraq and economic policies from the newly empowered Democratic majority in Congress.

Speaking live from a historic Capitol Hill meeting room, Webb displayed the same blunt manner that won over Virginia voters in November and later generated headlines after a face-to-face exchange with Bush at the White House.

Webb accused the president of taking the country into Iraq "recklessly" and forcing it to endure "a mismanaged war for nearly four years."

"Many, including myself, warned even before the war began that it was unnecessary; that it would take our energy and attention away from the larger war against terrorism; and that invading and occupying Iraq would leave us strategically vulnerable," Webb said.

Webb held up a picture of his father as a young Air Force captain. As a small boy, he said, he took the picture to bed with him to remind him of his father's sacrifice. Now, Webb's son is serving in Iraq as a Marine infantryman.

"We need a new direction," said Webb, a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. "Not one step back from the war against international terrorism, not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos, but an immediate shift toward strong, regionally based diplomacy."

Democrats owe their newfound control of the Senate to Webb's slim and improbable victory over former Virginia senator George Allen. Webb -- who served as secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan -- also embodies his party's central message: a determination to oppose the Iraq war while supporting the troops who are there.

Webb has become a folk hero among liberals and Democratic bloggers for brusquely telling Bush at a White House event that questions from the president about Webb's son are "between me and my boy."

So after just three weeks as a U.S. senator, Webb became the choice of the Democratic leadership in the Senate and House of Representatives to carry their blunt warning about Bush's new war strategy.

"He represents to me what the new America is all about," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) as he faced about 40 reporters with Webb and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). "Someone who understands what it means to go to war, what it means to have peace, what it means to work on a bipartisan basis. I think he's the perfect person to answer the president."

For the second year, Democrats turned to a newly elected Virginian for their response to Bush. Last year, they picked Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, fresh from victory in the conservative state.

Kaine offered an upbeat, hopeful message tinged with a few jabs at Bush. Webb, a former boxer, offered a harsher critique of the president's six years in office. With his party in control of Congress, Webb gave a speech that was more aggressive and confident.

On the economy, he described a growing divide between rich and poor during the Bush presidency. "In short, the middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table," he said.

For Webb, the speech capped a remarkable year that began with an underfunded, largely dismissed campaign to unseat a leading presidential hopeful. For most of the year, his campaign was ignored by pundits and criticized by suspicious Democrats.

But his bid for office caught on as Allen's was rocked by gaffes and scandal. After his 9,000-vote victory, Webb thrust his son's combat boots over his head, the first time Webb had had them off his feet in public since the Senate campaign began.

Webb began yesterday by spilling a cup of coffee on his blue shirt, prompting an aide to urge a change of clothes rather than just a buttoning of his jacket. "I told him this was one of the biggest appearances he'd make in his life, so maybe we should change the shirt," said Jessica Smith, Webb's communications director.

For the first time, networks planned to broadcast the State of the Union and Webb's response in high-definition television. That prompted Webb's staff to hire a makeup specialist who could make sure that Webb looked good in crystal-clear pictures.

Aides said Webb took the speech seriously, vigorously rewriting the initial draft suggested by the offices of Reid and Pelosi. But like past State of the Union responders, Webb received much unsolicited advice. Asked why the speech grew from five minutes to more than eight, Smith said, "That's what happens when you have input from everyone."

Webb concluded his speech with references to former presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt and a warning for Bush:

"These presidents took the right kind of action for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight, we are calling on this president to take similar action in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way."

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