By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007; A04
Just 10 months into his first term in elected office, James Webb found himself on the podium for one of the most coveted speaking slots in Democratic politics.
The freshman senator from Virginia delivered the keynote address to the New Hampshire Democratic Party at its annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner a week ago, a role that in recent years has been played by current and former White House candidates John Edwards and John F. Kerry. Two years ago the speech was delivered by Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.), who is viewed as a potential vice presidential pick next year.
Webb's role in the debate over Iraq and Iran has helped raise his profile far beyond that of the typical Senate newcomer. Webb is the only freshman Democrat to regularly attend Iraq strategy sessions in Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's office, and his proposal to extend home leaves for U.S. troops came closer to forcing a change in administration war policy than any other Democratic bill.
His upset of Sen. George Allen (R) last year and the prominent part he has taken in the congressional debate over Iraq have led to his being mentioned as a potential ticket-mate for the party's nominee in 2008. But he has made no effort to advance that cause with the leading Democratic contender in recent weeks.
On Oct. 18, Webb was one of five Democrats to help Republicans block a $1 million earmark for a Woodstock museum in Upstate New York, putting him at odds with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), one of the sponsors of the funding and the Democratic presidential front-runner. Webb's official explanation was that the project already had plenty of private funding, which he viewed as the proper way to finance it, but it is hard to overlook that he was serving in Vietnam in 1969 at the time of the storied rock festival.
He also offered a sharp critique last month of a resolution urging that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps be designated as a terrorist organization, arguing that it would give President Bush an opening to seek war with Iran. Clinton supported that measure, and her vote has become a sore point on the campaign trail.
"Those who regret their vote five years ago to authorize military action in Iraq should think hard before supporting this approach -- because, in my view, it has the same potential to do harm where many are seeking to do good," Webb said.
On other war-related bills, Webb and Clinton have worked as close collaborators. They co-authored a measure requiring the Pentagon to provide regular reports on redeployment plans. Clinton also endorsed a separate Iran bill, written by Webb, that would prohibit funds for U.S. military action against the country.
Webb's leadership on the Revolutionary Guard vote moved several other Democrats to oppose the resolution.
"The knee-jerk political response is, of course, we hate Iran," said a fellow freshman, Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). "I voted no because I had a chance to talk to Jim about it."
Direct and withering when talking about war, Webb can be awkward when the subject turns to his political ambitions -- particularly the vice presidential chatter that erupted shortly after he took office in January.
"This is like the conundrum -- there's no good answer," Webb said, laughing nervously. "I'm not in any way actively interested in doing that. Nobody is asking me about it, either."
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."