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Webb Seen as a Potential 2008 Running Mate
Webb's political appeal is based on the fact that the Marine combat veteran, acclaimed novelist and former Republican figured out how to unlock a conservative state with an antiwar populism that spoke to small-town and rural voters as well as the Democratic base. As Democrats seek to widen their majorities in Congress next year, Webb is much in demand as a fundraiser and campaigner. New Hampshire Democratic officials said he is their inspiration as they attempt to defeat Sen. John E. Sununu (R) in 2008.
"He was elected because veterans and working people in Virginia felt they didn't have a voice in Washington," said state Democratic Chairman Raymond Buckley. "We've run into the same problem . . . and I predict a similar outcome here in 2008."
Webb, a former Pentagon official and Navy secretary, wrote novels based on his Vietnam War experiences. In the Senate, he sits on three relevant committees: Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Veterans' Affairs. He keeps a writing office in Rosslyn that overlooks the Iwo Jima Memorial, and he often takes walks through Arlington National Cemetery, where his father is buried.
Reid, who met Webb in the early days of his long-shot Senate campaign, has become his patron in the chamber. The two were introduced by former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), another Vietnam veteran with an independent streak, who for years had been encouraging Webb to seek public office.
Reid lobbied his party to invest in Webb's candidacy, convinced that the political neophyte's unusual profile put the Virginia Senate seat, held by GOP rising star Allen, within reach. "It was one of the best decisions I've ever made," Reid said in an interview, but he conceded, "He's not easily led."
Shortly after his election, Webb snubbed the president at a White House reception when Bush asked about his son, a Marine recently deployed to Iraq. Asked by Reid to deliver the Democratic response to the State of the Union address, Webb discarded a draft prepared for him and wrote his own. This spring, when a senior Webb staffer was arrested carrying the senator's loaded handgun into a Capitol office building, Webb asserted his right "to defend myself and my family."
He learned a hard lesson when Reid brought his bill to extend troop leave times to the Senate floor last month. The legislation had fallen four votes short in July, but this time Webb believed he had locked up the support of GOP Sen. John W. Warner and expected his Virginia colleague to deliver at least five other Republican votes.
Warner, though, buckled under White House pressure, announcing his decision on the Senate floor the day of the vote without warning Webb in advance. "I was disappointed," Webb said briskly. But he quickly patched up his relationship with Warner, teaming with him on an effort to improve oversight of Iraq contractors.
Observers are divided on whether Webb's bluntness will be an asset or a disqualifier when the eventual Democratic nominee picks a running mate.
"Nobody can remember a freshman making the national impact he's made on his party," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
Presidential scholar Stephen Hess said, "At this point, where it's 100 percent speculation, there's nothing wrong with putting his name on the list." But he added: "He's an unguided missile. He would be too unpredictable."
Still, Webb has left even some Republicans impressed. "I actually like the guy, simply because he's passionate," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a first-term senator with a similar drive. "He's engaged; he's trying to make a difference."
But the big test, Graham said, is whether Webb is willing to take political risks that put him at odds with his party -- the difference between a forceful advocate and a real leader. "You need the ability to break away from your base at times and find another ground," Graham said. "We'll see if he can do that. That would take him to another level."