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A New Democrat

Jim Webb’s populist Senate campaign shakes up Virginia’s political establishment.

To Jim Webb’s most enthusiastic supporters, this is no ordinary campaign. Ask why their candidate should win the Democratic nomination to challenge Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen, and you won’t just hear where he stands on the minimum wage or the usual “man of integrity” superlatives. Instead Webb is presented as a kind of folk hero, equal parts Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and—at least among his more conservative backers—Ronald Reagan.

Even typically cynical political observers have been starstruck. Since entering the race this spring, Webb has joked around on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” and “live blogged” on the popular Daily Kos website. What do liberal bloggers see in Webb, a former Republican appointee and stalwart defender of the American mission during the Vietnam War?

“He can help revitalize the Democratic Party with a jolt of Andrew Jackson populism and Teddy Roosevelt reform,” says Lowell Feld, proprietor of the Virginia-based Raising Kaine site. “He can bring people—Reagan Democrats, cultural conservatives, Southerners—back into the Democratic fold and help rebuild the big tent.” Just as important, Webb has the military credentials to make his strong opposition to the Iraq War, the central plank of his campaign platform, less vulnerable to Republican attack. While Allen is famous for his cowboy boots, Webb wears combat boots—those of his son, who is scheduled to be deployed to Iraq this summer.

That is why Webb’s big tent includes some liberal Democrats holding elected office in Northern Virginia. Arlington County Revenue Commissioner Ingrid Morroy has strongly endorsed him. “I support Jim Webb for two reasons,” she says. “One is that he can beat George Allen. The second is that he is really the more progressive candidate. He is a populist.”

Webb’s biography is impressive enough to make all this praise seem less hyperbolic. A 1968 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was a varsity boxer, he served as a Marine officer in Vietnam. Twice wounded, he earned the Navy Cross, the Silver Star medal, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. Webb went on to collect a law degree from Georgetown, serve as counsel to the House Veterans Affairs Committee, receive appointments as assistant defense secretary and secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, win an Emmy Award, and pen six bestselling novels.

“This isn’t a guy who has spent his whole life running for office,” one Webb supporter says approvingly. Richmond tax attorney J.C. Wilmore also emphasizes biography as a reason for Webb’s appeal. “You get the feeling you can get to know Jim,” he says. These attributes have not gone unnoticed by national Democrats. Seven current and former senior Democratic senators, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, recently endorsed Webb, a move that suggests they believe he is a candidate who could beat the Republican Allen in the general election.

But first Webb must defeat former lobbyist Harris Miller in the June 13 Democratic primary. Miller has deep roots in the state party, spent six years as chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, and has a slight edge in local endorsements. With an earlier start, he has also raised more money—$540,000 as of April to Webb’s $260,000—and has more cash on hand. Technocratic and wonkish, Miller doesn’t have his opponent’s engaging personality or oratorical flare. What he does have is just as important, however: longstanding political alliances and a geographic base in vote-rich Northern Virginia.

Miller’s strategy is to paint Webb as an inauthentic Democrat being foisted on the electorate by non-Virginians. To lessen the impact of Webb’s many national endorsements, Miller’s spokesman likes to say, “Most of the people who have endorsed [Miller] can vote in the Virginia primary.” The Miller campaign has also mined Webb’s extensive writings and public statements for deviations from liberal orthodoxy while playing up his past Republican associations.

The thought crimes include an essay in which Webb described racial preferences as “state-sponsored racism” comparable to Jim Crow, a revelation worth several endorsements for Miller from black state legislators. But Webb’s actual views on the subject are less conservative than this single quotation makes them appear. His campaign says he supports affirmative action to remedy past discrimination against black Americans but is critical of diversity programs that don’t take into consideration the socioeconomic conditions of poor whites, especially in areas like the Appalachians. Disclosures that Webb wasn’t sufficiently enthusiastic about either Bill Clinton or women in combat seem to have had less impact.

Webb’s shifting partisan allegiances are well documented. He swung to the GOP due to his disgust with the post-Vietnam Democratic Party, recently telling George Will that Jimmy Carter’s decision to pardon the draft evaders was pivotal, but was never a Republican regular. He supported Bob Kerrey’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 and endorsed Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb over Oliver North in 1994 only to back George Allen over Robb in 2000.

Yet Iraq is the single biggest factor that drove Webb from the Republican Party. It is difficult to see how Webb’s Iraq prescience—he was antiwar long before the invasion—helps Miller. Memories of the 2000 Allen endorsement may fade after 11 former senior staffers to Robb announced their support for Webb. And Miller’s own background as president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) provides opposition researchers just as much fodder as Webb’s voting history and writing portfolio.

As ITAA head, Miller made financial contributions to six Republicans, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert. “Speaker Hastert gets IT,” he told an Internet news service. In ITAA-issued press releases, Miller called for the extension of President Bush’s tax cuts, a move he now opposes. He also gave an interview to the Orlando Business Journal in which he claimed to be doing everything he could to see conservative Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham of Michigan re-elected in 2000. (Abraham lost.)

Miller counters that he only gave money to Republicans because the ITAA board required him to be bipartisan in his giving. Similarly, his campaign justifies his previous tax-cut stance on the grounds that he was only representing his organization’s interests, particularly the technology sector’s desire to extend the research-and-development tax credit. But all this makes it more difficult for Miller to claim to be the purer Democrat.

His ITAA tenure was also marked by strenuous support for sending technology jobs overseas through outsourcing and expanding the number of non-immigrant visas available to foreign workers to obtain jobs in the U.S. information-technology labor market. These stands have made him unpopular among IT and union workers and made him as much a villain to his opponent’s supporters as Webb is their hero.

“I first became involved in this race because of Miller’s record on H-1B and other worker-replacement programs,” says anti-outsourcing activist John Pardon. “Then I became very enthusiastic about Jim Webb on his own merits.” It was these kinds of activists Webb had in mind when, in their first televised debate, he told Miller, “You have been called the Antichrist of Outsourcing.”

The issue resonates with traditional Democrats as well. “These visa programs are exploiting foreign labor and eroding the middle class,” says Morroy, who was born in the Netherlands and raised in Suriname. “I’m willing to pay more to see American and immigrant workers treated fairly.”

The outcome of this primary fight will have national implications. The most obvious pertain to 2008. If Allen is forced to spend this fall defending his seat or ends up losing, his Republican presidential bid may be derailed. By contrast, a Democratic Senate pickup in Virginia would aid the presidential aspirations of former Gov. Mark Warner, who has held fundraisers for both men. While a Rassmussen poll shows both Webb and Miller trailing Allen badly, a Zogby survey has Webb down by just 7 points—and Allen below the critical 50-percent incumbents’ threshold.

Webb’s candidacy, if it can attract broad electoral support, may signal the shift of a certain kind of voter away from the Republican Party—the sort of voter exemplified by the Scots-Irish about whom he has written so frequently. When Webb came home from Vietnam, the Democrats were seen as unserious about national security and less culturally congenial to those who serve in the military. Today, Webb is concerned that it is the GOP that has gone crazy on issues of national defense and shows disrespect to veterans with its Swiftboat campaign tactics.

Consider that Webb opposes the Iraq War on conservative-realist grounds and was repulsed by Republican attacks on John Kerry and John Murtha. What if he is not an anomaly but a harbinger? When Webb began his campaign, Mackubin Thomas Owens warned in National Review Online, “the Republicans can’t afford to lose such people.” It would be an irony if the neoconservatives, many of whom fled the Democratic Party because of its increasingly dovish military stances, ended up making the Republican Party as abhorrent to pro-defense voters as the nuclear-freeze movement of old.

As a first-time candidate, Webb has his flaws. His appeal to culturally conservative voters may be mitigated by his attacks on the Religious Right and strong pro-choice, pro-gay-rights stands; his positions on domestic issues lack specificity. But Webb supporters are already looking ahead to November. “A poseur in cowboy boots versus a war hero in combat boots,” forecasts Wilmore. “I can’t wait.”