By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008
RICHMOND Virginia Sen. James Webb, ending a nationwide publicity tour, is fueling speculation that he will be on Sen. Barack Obama's shortlist for vice presidential candidates.
But don't start making Obama-Webb signs just yet.
Since Sunday, Webb (D) has appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," CBS's "Early Show," NPR's "Fresh Air" and the "Late Show With David Letterman." He was also scheduled to be on "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" on MSNBC and CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" on Tuesday.
The media blitz, which included being featured on the cover of Parade magazine Sunday, coincides with the release of Webb's latest book, "A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America," which chronicles what he says are the economic and foreign policy challenges facing the nation.
Not even two years into his first term in the Senate, Webb is making a name for himself as a plainspoken lawmaker who opposes the war in Iraq and forcefully pushes his message of economic populism.
Last week, Webb scored the biggest legislative victory of his congressional career when the House approved his bill to enhance the benefits offered to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the record, Webb says he's not interested in being a vice-presidential candidate this year. After "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert pressed him Sunday, Webb said he would "highly discourage" both Democratic candidates for president from offering him a spot on the ticket, saying he's happy in the Senate.
But few politicians have been known to decline a spot on the ticket if they are offered it.
If Obama defeats Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) for the Democratic nomination, which looks increasingly likely, Webb might be a formidable addition to the Democratic ticket.
A former Marine who was highly decorated for his service in Vietnam, Webb would enhance Obama's national security credentials and help Democrats counter Arizona Sen. John McCain's heroic military record.
Like Obama, Webb opposed the war in Iraq long before the invasion in March 2003, giving Obama an opportunity to reinforce his central argument that Democrats had the better judgment when it came to whether to authorize the war. And Obama could charge Webb, who served as secretary of the Navy, with planning an exit strategy from the war in Iraq that would not lead to chaos in the Middle East.
Webb also is a former Republican, which fits neatly with Obama's campaign theme of reaching out to independents and Republicans in changing the way business is done in Washington. Webb, an opponent of gun control, would also provide some ideological balance to Obama, who leans to the left on many issues.
Webb's focus on the economic plight of working-class Americans, many of whom live in rural communities, could help Obama win over some of those voters who have so far been skeptical of him.
Beyond Webb's potential national appeal, Obama will probably need some help if he wants to win Virginia in the fall. If an Obama-Webb ticket wins Virginia's 13 electoral votes, which last went to a Democrat in 1964, it's hard to see how it wouldn't win the general election.
But despite the early campaign among pundits and bloggers for Obama to choose Webb, there are plenty of reasons why the Illinois senator might look elsewhere for a running mate.
Unlike other potential Obama running mates, such as Clinton or New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), Webb remains relatively unvetted because much of the focus during the 2006 Senate race was on former senator George Allen (R-Va.).
One well-known component of Webb's background might limit his appeal to Obama. After a primary campaign in which some of Clinton's female supporters say she was mistreated by Obama and the media, a few are threatening to sit out the general election if Obama is the nominee.
Webb might not be Obama's best choice for winning them over.
As those who followed Webb's 2006 campaign can recall, he was dogged by an article he wrote in 1979, when he was a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, titled "Women Can't Fight." The article argued against allowing women to fight in combat, a view Webb has since renounced.
Webb survived that controversy during his Senate campaign, beating Allen by 10 percentage points among female voters, according to exit polls.
But it's far from clear how women in other states would react to the article, as well as questions that have arisen about Webb's temper and some passages in his novels.
Another hurdle to Webb being Obama's running mate is his campaign know-how.
Although some Democrats say Webb is getting better, during his 2006 Senate campaign, he was nervous in front of large crowds, couldn't understand why people wanted to shake his hand and hated asking people for money.
Could he board a campaign plane six times a day, shake thousands of hands, kiss babies and give essentially the same speech hundreds of times during a fall general election campaign while under a media spotlight?
His biggest obstacle to being offered a spot on the ticket might come down to a realization within the Obama campaign that it's not a sure thing that Webb would deliver Virginia for Democrats.
In 2006, Webb won the state by just 9,000 votes, despite the national Democratic tide and Allen's well-publicized gaffes. In the 2004 presidential race, President Bush beat Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass) by 262,000 votes in Virginia, highlighting the hurdle that Obama and Webb would face in winning the state this year.
Although North Carolina is a slightly more Republican-leaning state than Virginia, Kerry's decision to put then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) on the ticket failed to change the overall dynamic of the presidential contest in that state in 2004. Bush won North Carolina, Virginia's neighbor to the south, by 435,000 votes.
Since Webb's 2006 victory, there has been little evidence that he has spent a great deal of time trying to build a political operation in Virginia. Republicans say Webb will be vulnerable if he seeks reelection in 2012, and some Virginia Democrats complain that he hasn't been visible enough. In a Washington Post poll in October, Webb had a 50 percent approval rating.
If Obama wanted to win Virginia, he would be better off selecting former governor Mark R. Warner, a Democratic candidate for Senate this year, or Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), a former Richmond mayor who is well liked among moderate Republican women in that city's GOP-leaning suburbs.
But Webb has a compelling background and career that could lift Obama up enough nationwide to counteract uncertainty about his running mate's strengths in his home state.
Obama would, however, be making a bold choice.