State Sen. Leslie L. Byrne (Fairfax) said yesterday that she may challenge U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. for the 2004 Democratic nomination in Virginia's 8th District, the most visible sign of what party leaders say is Moran's precarious political position after he suggested that Jews were pushing the nation into war with Iraq.
As the bipartisan furor over Moran's remarks continued on Capitol Hill, with six Jewish House colleagues urging him to leave Congress at the end of his current term, Byrne emerged as the most vocal of several Northern Virginia Democrats itching for the opportunity to challenge the seven-term incumbent from Alexandria.
"A primary fight with Jim Moran would be a bloodbath, a bare-knuckled brawl," said Byrne, a former member of Congress who reentered the General Assembly in 2000 but is now losing her Senate seat to redistricting.
But Byrne added, "There has been incident after incident with Jim, and people are scratching their heads, saying, 'Is this the best representation we can get?' This latest incident, no one can excuse."
Moran declined to comment yesterday. Aides said he continued his outreach to Jewish leaders and fellow Democrats to contain the fallout from remarks he made at an antiwar forum in Reston on March 3, when he said, "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this."
The remarks were first reported by the Reston Connection and then gained wider circulation in other newspapers, prompting a second apology by Moran, who said he had sought to make a larger point about the role of religious leaders in the nation's war debate.
Over the course of his congressional career, Moran has apologized for various remarks and actions, and he has been criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike over possible conflicts of interest and other ethical issues.
However, the current furor is worse for Moran on several levels, according to both ardent supporters and a growing number of critics.
By alienating many Jewish voters, Moran ruptured his traditional Democratic base, forcing him to rethink his entire fundraising and electoral strategy for the balance of his two-year term. Democrats said Moran also angered non-Jewish voters on the most emotional and politically explosive issue facing the United States: whether the nation should proceed with a war against Iraq.
Several local activists said the latest incident was an acute embarrassment for a party that has struggled in recent years as Virginia turned increasingly Republican.
"I'm profoundly disappointed," said Susan Kellom, who chairs the Alexandria Democratic Committee. On Capitol Hill, six Jewish House Democrats, including Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), issued a letter saying Moran's statements were "not merely wrong, offensive, and ignorant. They are grossly irresponsible."
"We hope that as Jim reflects on his actions, he will decide not to seek reelection," said Moran's colleagues. "Should he seek reelection in 2004, however, we cannot and will not support his candidacy."
Meanwhile, Republicans kept up the pressure. Rep. Eric I. Cantor, who is from the Richmond area and is a member of the House GOP leadership, called on Democrats to strip Moran of his most influential committee assignments to "limit the damage his beliefs can do."
"Their refusal to do this can only be seen as an endorsement of his views," Cantor said.
Closer to home, fractures continued to spread in the Virginia Democratic Party.
Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who sparred with Moran last year over the congressman's ethics, wrote to the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington that Moran's assertions about the role of Jewish leaders were "factually ludicrous and morally offensive." About Moran's apology, Kaine said, "I leave it up to the voters of the Eighth District to decide if the apology is sufficient."
Most potential Democratic challengers were taking a wait-and-see attitude, acknowledging that Moran can probably weather this storm but fairly certain that at least one serious candidate will try to exploit the political damage.
"There is no question he will have a Democratic primary challenge," said Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence), a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors who may jump into the race.
Democratic leaders said other challengers might include three residents of vote-rich Reston, which is new to Moran's congressional district: Fairfax Board Chairman Katherine K. Hanley, state Sen. Janet D. Howell and state Del. Kenneth R. Plum, a former state Democratic Party chairman.
Two popular Democrats, former lieutenant governor Donald S. Beyer Jr. and Alexandria Mayor Kerry J. Donley, held the door open a crack to a possible challenge.
"I'm not actively considering it, but we'll see what happens," Beyer said. Donley, a Moran protege, said, "I've always thought about running for Congress sooner or later. It might be sooner. Challenging Jim is not on my radar screen right now."
Moran has been a resilient politician and formidable fundraiser, relying on a solid base of support from his days in Alexandria, where he was mayor in the late 1980s.
Alexandria and Arlington were the political heart of Moran's district, but after redistricting in 2001, the center of political power shifted west to Fairfax County.
Byrne was ousted from a seat in the U.S. House by Republican Thomas M. Davis III in 1994. She indicated yesterday that she will decide within weeks whether to challenge Moran.
"A primary in '04 would have to start this summer," Byrne said, referring to the daunting organizational issues that would confront any Democrat. "I was considering it before, but the interest in me doing it has picked up considerably now."