Author, Vietnam veteran Webb targets Republican Allen

Maverick seeks to unseat Va. senator

April 13, 2006|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,SUN REPORTER

ARLINGTON, Va. -- If screenwriter Jim Webb were crafting the story of Senate candidate Jim Webb, it would go like this:

An anti-war Democrat with a war-hero record and a quirky personal history knocks off one of the Republican Party's fastest-rising stars and helps his party win back the Senate in the 2006 election.

"I guarantee you, if I'm elected to the United States Senate, we will raise some hell," Webb told a gathering of Democratic activists in the Northern Virginia suburbs the other night.

Webb, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran and longtime combatant in America's culture wars, has written for the movies, including Rules of Engagement (2000), and has written novels including Fields of Fire (1978), which is based on his experience as a Marine platoon leader.

He also was a Republican staff member in Congress and was Navy secretary in the Reagan administration.

He has benefited from his celebrity, launching a late-starting campaign last month with an appearance on cable television's hip Colbert Report. He is running as an outsider at a time of widespread voter anger and frustration, and his anti-war views are drawing attention from liberal bloggers.

Webb, 60, was an early and prescient critic of the Iraq war. Long before the invasion, he warned about the dangers of occupying Iraq and predicted that U.S. troops "would quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets." He now is calling for complete withdrawal within two years.

The man he hopes to unseat, Republican Sen. George Allen, has been a strong supporter of President Bush and his war policy. Looking past re-election to the 2008 presidential contest, the senator has emerged as a strong favorite of social and religious conservatives across the country.

A recent statewide poll suggests that he might be vulnerable at home, however. The Wall Street Journal online survey, conducted by Zogby International, showed the senator leading Webb by seven percentage points.

Webb's background and maverick style could help him attract Republicans and independents. His family ties to the hills of rural southwestern Virginia and his ardent backing of gun rights might help connect him to Virginia's "NASCAR voters," brought to national attention a few years ago by strategists now advising Webb.

He's "George Allen's worst nightmare" say the posters at Webb's campaign headquarters.

But Webb is also an opposition researcher's dream, including those working for his primary opponent, Harris Miller, a former technology industry lobbyist and longtime Democratic activist.

In an interview, Webb said his opponent "doesn't have anything else to do other than to try to tear apart two million words that I've written and create a problem."

His rival contends that those writings reveal Webb's beliefs. Webb is not only to the right of most Democrats on some key issues, but "he's more conservative than a lot of Republicans are," Miller said in an interview.

Two days after Webb announced his candidacy, his opponents went on the attack. Retired Lt. Gen. Claudia J. Kennedy, the Army's first female three-star general, accused Webb of sexism, referring to "Women Can't Fight," a 1979 magazine article he wrote.

In the article, Webb, who had just finished a semester as writer in residence at the Naval Academy, his alma mater, opposed the notion of women in combat and said he wouldn't trust any of the dozens of female midshipmen he had met to lead men in combat.

Webb "certainly made it clear that he doesn't think women are essential in the military," Kennedy said in endorsing Miller.

Webb said those issues are 20 years in the past and that he fixed the problems he saw at Annapolis when he became Navy secretary in 1987 (he resigned the next year to protest budget cuts).

He is showcasing his support from the first woman elected to Congress from Virginia, Leslie L. Byrne, who narrowly lost her race for lieutenant governor last fall.

"It doesn't matter what you call yourself. It matters what you believe," she tells voters, defending Webb against criticism that he isn't really a Democrat.

His opponent says Webb has voted in "lots" of Republican primaries. Webb says he doesn't know whether he has voted in more Republican primaries or Democratic ones.

Webb, who worked for Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s, and criticized the Clinton administration as corrupt, says he is returning to the party of his youth. At campaign events, he quotes his biographer, Robert Timberg, who wrote in The Nightingale's Song (1995) that Webb had been "a lifelong if lukewarm Democrat" until he went to Vietnam.

Webb supported the presidential campaign of Democrat Bob Kerrey, then a Nebraska senator, in 1992, and Kerrey is returning the favor by serving as Webb's national finance chairman. But Webb has also endorsed Republicans over the years, including Allen in 2000. He broke with the senator over the Iraq war.

"I am like your typical guy," Webb said, "sitting out here wishing that one party or the other would speak for what I believe in."

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