Will state Democrats back D.C.'s horse?
Virginia voters in Tuesday's Senate primary weigh who they like – and who can oust the GOP incumbent.
ARLINGTON, VA. — War hero and former Reagan Navy secretary James Webb is the name that Senate Democrats hope will lead the ticket against Republican Sen. George Allen in this fall's election, because they're convinced he could win.
"He's our best hope for defeating Allen in November," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in a statement last week.
But it's not clear that Virginia Democrats expected to turn out in Tuesday's primary election got the memo.
At an annual dinner on Friday, not a hint of applause from Arlington County Democrats greeted Mr. Webb's announcement that 13 Democratic senators had "stood up and endorsed my candidacy."
"I'm a yellow dog Democrat," explained retired teacher Jean Barton, a Democratic Party activist since the 1960s, in a reference to Southern Democrats' historical pattern of voting for their party's candidates whether they like them or not. "I like to dance with the guy who brought me."
That guy would be high-tech lobbyist and consultant Harris Miller, who was chairing the Fairfax County Democratic Committee when Mr. Webb, a Reagan Democrat, joined the Reagan administration.
"I've known [Mr. Harris] for 20-plus years. He's a Democrat whose values I share," says Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington, Va., who chairs the state Senate Democratic Caucus.
"It wasn't easy to be a Democrat in Virginia in the 1980s," Mr. Miller told a hometown crowd in the state's most liberal district. He said he has driven more than 24,000 campaign-trail miles in his "hybrid vehicle" since January. He has also contributed nearly $1 million of his own money to his campaign, more than double what Webb has raised for this fight.
But if Webb were to pull off a primary victory, he could expect a surge of national funding to defeat Senator Allen, who is also a probable 2008 presidential contender.
"Webb would be a candidate that Allen cannot afford to ignore," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Webb can serve as a very useful standard-bearer for the Democratic Party nationally, not just in Virginia. He's exactly the image that Democrats need to project to win in some red states."
Allen, elected to the Senate in 2000, is no longer a sure thing in Virginia, especially if state Democratic voters go with Webb as the challenger, says Jennifer Duffy, who handicaps Senate races for the Cook Political Report.
"Virginia is changing," she says. "It is not a solidly red state anymore."
Allen, she adds, "has been hampered by all the talk of his 2008 ambitions. Webb is a strong candidate because he speaks to all those voters who have a problem with the war." The Allen campaign launched its first TV ads last week.
A decorated marine, award-winning journalist, and author of six best-selling novels, Webb came out in opposition to the war in Iraq, which he characterized as the greatest strategic blunder in modern times, back in September 2002. His antiwar stance could draw antiwar conservatives, as well as libertarians, from the Allen camp.
"If Webb got the nomination, it would be an interesting opportunity for libertarians to think whether they prefer an orthodox, conservative, Bush Republican against an unorthodox antiwar Democrat," says David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "He's very critical of the war, but from a perspective that is not far left. It's a patriotic, mainstream, American criticism of the war. He was Reagan's secretary of the Navy, [he's] not [House Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi."
Webb and Harris both oppose the war, but Webb did so earlier and publicly. The war would turn troops into "terrorist targets," and there was not an exit strategy "because the principal architects of this war did not intend for us to leave," he said last week during a debate with Harris on MSNBC's "Hardball."
They also take bookend positions on outsourcing of US jobs, especially high-tech jobs. Miller, a former president of the Information Technology Association of America, says outsourcing is good for the economy. Webb promises to stop good jobs from being exported overseas.
But asked at the end of the MSNBC debate whether he would endorse Hillary Rodham Clinton or popular former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) for the presidency in 2008 – a no-brainer for a Virginia Democrat – Webb said he was undecided.
"He's undisciplined as a candidate," says Ms. Duffy of the Cook Political Report.
While Harris has focused his campaign on traditional Democratic groups, Webb is counting on support from new voters, many recruited from the blogosphere.
In a race with no polling, and with the turnout percentage among Democrats expected to be in single digits, it's tough to predict the outcome. "If voters behave the way the textbook says they do, then Miller wins," she adds. "If voters start to contemplate electability, than Webb wins."