Former Senator James Webb (D-VA) addresses the International Association of Firefighters delegates at IAFF Presidential Forum in Washington, March 10, 2015. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Former senator James Webb of Virginia told a crowd of firefighters Tuesday morning that he may be asking for their help soon with a 2016 presidential bid.

Recalling the “Firefighters for Webb” who helped elect him to the Senate in 2006, the ex-lawmaker said, “I’m here today to say, I may call on you again. So stay tuned.”

The former Navy Secretary and Vietnam veteran recalled the unconventional background that helped propel him to office almost a decade ago, arguing that he is the same outsider today.

“I think I can safely say that I am still the only person ever elected to statewide office in Virginia with a union card, two Purple Hearts and three tattoos,” he said.

Should he run for president, Webb will likely position himself as a populist, plainspoken alternative to former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. More conservative than Clinton on some issues and more liberal on others, Webb could harry his fellow Democrat from left and right.

But while he has criticized the Democratic party generally as too beholden to corporate interests, Webb declined Tuesday to attack Clinton directly. Asked after his speech about her use of a private e-mail account while serving in the State Department, he deflected.

“I think that’s between her and you all,” he told reporters. “The best thing is to listen to her views and people will make conclusions in a better way than I can.”

He also shied away from supporting or opposing marijuana legalization, calling state laws “an interesting national experiment” that should be allowed to play out further.

He spoke at a presidential forum hosted by the International Association of Fire Fighters, sandwiched between two prominent Republican hopefuls: Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Webb was joined Tuesday by two other possible contenders: former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.). Vice President Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) addressed the group a day earlier.

In his speech, Webb emphasized his support for union bargaining rights and promised to “stand up to the financial sector . . . to the powerful financial interests who are going to spend billions of dollars in order to elect people who think the current drift toward a permanent, moneyed aristocracy is okay.” He called for criminal justice reform, new investment in infrastructure and education and expanded affordable child care and housing.

Invoking the danger he faced as a Marine in combat, Webb said that experience gave him a deeper understanding of first responders than other politicians.

“I suppose there’s a lot of people who can say that they’ve seen firefighters fight a fire. But there aren’t very many who can say they’ve fought a fire,” he said. “I used to say when I was in the Senate when a lot of my colleagues liked to point out how many, many times they’d been to Iraq and Afghanistan, ‘Dropping in on a war isn’t quite the same thing as fighting a war.’ ”

Webb in November became the first Democrat to form an presidential exploratory committee. Since then, however, he has moved slowly, giving occasional speeches but not hitting the trail in key primary states. Having left the Senate after only one term, he has been dogged by skepticism that he will truly commit to a grueling presidential campaign.

He told the press Tuesday that while he is still deciding whether he will enter the race, he has been reaching out to primary voters and gauging support both political and financial. The “flood” of unlimited political donations allowed under current campaign finance law, he said, is a factor he needs to consider.

A group of Fairfax firefighters greeted Webb warmly after the speech. They declined to comment on the presidential election, saying members around the state would have to weigh in on the candidates. But, they said, Webb brings a unique perspective to the national debate.

“He’s the only card-carrying union member running,” said Colin Flanigan, vice president of the Fairfax County firefighters’ union chapter. “That’s huge.”

IAFF President Harold Schaitberger, introducing Webb, said an absence from the political scene is not a liability for a lawmaker who so strongly supported collective bargaining. “Having our backs when we need it most,” he said, “is something we do not forget.”