Will Webb run again? Anticipation building.

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; C04

James Webb often points out just how many jobs he's had in his 64 years - soldier and Navy secretary, lawyer and Hill staffer, journalist and novelist, among others. The question now worrying Democrats is just how much longer Webb wants to remain Virginia's senior U.S. senator.

Webb's decision on whether to run for a second term in 2012 could have a big impact on whether Democrats are able to hold his seat and even control the Senate, as the party braces for a bruising election cycle in which Democrats will have to defend more than twice as many seats as Republicans.

On the Republican side, former senator George Allen is mulling over a bid, as are a few others. And Democrats are praying that Webb will run, knowing their bench of viable statewide candidates is thin. Both parties are eager to hear Webb's decision, and they won't have to wait long.

"I'm going to be sitting down with my family through this break," Webb said in a recent interview in his Senate office. "We're going to sort this out fairly soon. . . . We're looking to make a decision during the first quarter [of 2011], if I don't run, out of respect for other people."

No 'traditional' politician

Senators just completing their first term in office aren't typically viewed as prime candidates for retirement, but Webb is anything but typical.

He has no love for ribbon-cuttings or the cocktail-reception circuit. Unlike most politicians, Webb does not appear drawn to crowds and human contact. He speaks regularly of his love for writing, a solitary pursuit.

"He eschews the normal aspects of politics," Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said of Webb. "He doesn't do the networking. He doesn't show up at the expected places."

Some of his decisions, however, could cause headaches in a campaign. He voted in early December against enacting a ban on spending earmarks, breaking with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and drawing criticism from conservatives - including Allen. Webb also provoked some liberals in July by penning a Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for an end to most affirmative action programs and dismissing the "myth of white privilege."

"He's not so much a backslapper. . . ." said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). "He's willing to take stands that other people won't. It's refreshing that he's not the traditional retail politician."

Webb is also known not to enjoy fundraising, and it shows. As of Sept. 30, he had $471,000 on hand in his campaign account. Of the 33 senators up for reelection in 2012, 23 have more cash in the bank than Webb. Warner, who doesn't face reelection until 2014, has nearly four times as much as Webb.

Those numbers have caught the eye of political professionals in both parties, because running statewide in Virginia is expensive. In their 2006 matchup, Webb spent more than $8 million and Allen spent nearly twice that amount. Warner shelled out more than $12 million for his 2008 victory.

"I just haven't done any of it," Webb said of fundraising - but he isn't concerned that he will be at a disadvantage if he decides to run.

"I think if I go out and do what needs to be done, the money will be there," Webb said, noting that he didn't announce his 2006 run until nine months before Election Day.

Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, warned against reading too much into Webb's campaign account.

"If and when he decides to run, he can ramp things up fairly quickly," Gonzales said. "He's an incumbent with something of a national profile."

A thin bench

If Webb chooses not to run, several Virginia Democrats said the party had an obvious Plan B: Former governor Timothy M. Kaine, the current Democratic National Committee chairman.

"Chairman Kaine worked hard to elect Jim Webb to the Senate in 2006, and he fully intends to do so again in 2012," said DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse. He wouldn't comment further on Kaine's future plans.

Democrats who know Kaine well said privately they believe he would rather serve in President Obama's Cabinet and is not interested in the Senate. But they also noted that Obama and Kaine have a close relationship, so it might be difficult for Kaine to say no if Obama asked him to run for Webb's seat.

The real drop-off comes after Kaine. There are few Democrats in the state with the name identification and fundraising ability to run a strong Senate campaign.

Rep. Tom Perriello, who lost in November after one term in Congress, is a favorite of many liberal activists, but he is not well known outside of the 5th District. Terry McAuliffe, who lost in the Democratic primary for governor in 2009, appears focused on running for the same office again in 2013.

Among Republicans, Allen wants a rematch, while Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, and Del. Robert G. Marshall (Prince William) are also considering runs.

A poll released last week by the nonpartisan Clarus Research Group showed Webb barely leading Allen in a 2012 matchup, 41 percent to 40 percent.

Virginia tilted strongly toward the GOP in last month's midterm election, with Republicans knocking off three incumbent House Democrats. Webb said he wasn't surprised by the results, given the public mood.

"There are a lot of people in this country who are justifiably worried about the direction that the country is going in and also had some pretty strong feelings about the priorities that this new administration brought to the table when they came in," Webb said.

He specifically faulted the Obama White House for its handling of the health-reform bill. "I really think the timing on the health-care debate and the fact that the administration did not lead with a specific legislative format hurt a lot of people," Webb said.

Not thinking 'bill-by-bill'

Some who know Webb said he might decide against running for a second term if he feels frustrated by the progress of his priorities in the Senate. "I think a lot depends on what he thinks he can get done," Moran said.

Webb has already achieved one major goal. In 2008, President Bush signed into law Webb's new G.I. Bill, which provides college funding for military veterans.

Another key priority for Webb - legislation creating a commission to recommend sweeping reforms to the criminal justice system - hasn't gone as far. With the bipartisan backing of lawmakers and key interest groups, the bill has passed the House but has yet to receive a vote by the full Senate.

Important as the criminal justice issue is to Webb, he said he doesn't determine his own success by the progress of that or any other specific measure.

"My approach really isn't bill-by-bill up here," he said. "I've spent most of my life as a writer, and my approach is more to try to take hold of some of these larger conceptual issues that people aren't working on and trying to distill them into policy."

Connolly said Webb has been an "extraordinary voice" on military issues for Virginia and for Democrats as a party. As an example, Connolly cited a meeting Virginia's congressional delegation and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) had last month with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to discuss the potential closure of the Norfolk-based Joint Forces Command and a possible steep reduction in the Pentagon's use of private contractors.

Virginia officials had been requesting such a meeting for months, but they didn't get it until Webb placed a hold on all pending Defense Department nominations in the Senate. Small victories like that one could help him in a reelection race.

"I think you can't underestimate stature," Connolly said.

Beyond Webb's criminal justice bill and pursuing what he calls "economic fairness," Webb has devoted time to working to "reorient" American foreign policy, particularly with China and its neighbors.

Despite that interest, Webb laughs off a question about whether he'd like to be secretary of State, saying "The job is currently filled."

"I don't have any particular intentions," Webb said of what he might do in his post-Senate career. "I've spent a majority of my life outside of government. . . . I don't really have a game plan."

Ben.Pershing@wpost.com Staff writer T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.

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