War hero vs. faux cowboy

War hero Jim Webb has the risumi to take a Senate seat away from presidential hopeful George Allen. But the cowboy-boot-wearing Allen will use every trick in the Rove playbook.

Published July 17, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

If federal elections were decided on biography, Democrat Jim Webb would be a sure bet as Virginia's next senator. Back when his Republican opponent, the incumbent George Allen, was playing football on a college draft deferment, Webb had already shipped off to Vietnam, the first in his class from Marine officer training school. Around the time Allen began summering as a buckaroo on a Nevada dude ranch, Webb was in law school recovering from grenade shrapnel that had lodged in his knee during a firefight in An Hoa Basin. Despite his wounds, which include metal shards that remain in his skull, Webb fought on to the battle's completion, earning a Navy Cross to go with his two Purple Hearts.

But elections hinge on far more than the actual stories of candidates. They turn on a blizzard of 30-second campaign ads, sound-bitten messages and political attacks. And that is why Allen, the part-time cowpoke, has been telling folks on the campaign trail that he questions the patriotic values of Webb, the war hero. "The bottom line is I believe in the values of Virginians and think there should be laws prohibiting the desecration of the U.S. flag," Allen said, as he stood in black cowboy boots on the carpeted hallways of a downstate Holiday Inn earlier this month. Of Webb, he added, "He was on the side of the elites."

The cowboy boots and the flag talk are just a part of Allen's swaggering campaign act, which he has been refining all of his life in expectation of a probable presidential run in 2008. The son of a legendary pro-football coach, Allen played quarterback in high school and wore a Confederate flag lapel pin in his yearbook photo, even though he grew up in the wealthy suburbs of Los Angeles. He drove a pickup truck through college, and used to hang a noose from the ficus tree in his old Virginia law office as part of a "Western motif." Today, at the age of 54, he grows his sideburns stocky and square, and he squints when he smiles, like an old rancher who has spent too much time in the sun. Whenever he campaigns, even in the fluorescent hallways of a Holiday Inn, a young aide trails him with an actual football in hand -- just in case the boss wants to play catch.

In sum, Allen is that rare politician who can make his political role models, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, look like sissies by comparison. He towers over crowds and speaks in folksy bullet points"common-sense values," "secure the borders," "America won't back down." He seems to love campaigning more than governing. At a recent visit to the Hanover County tomato festival, Allen dodged swarming June bugs as admiring voters took a break from the Wissie Cakes and Confederate history booths to shake his hand and sing his praises. "Welcome back to red America," one particularly effusive voter said upon greeting the senator. "Red America," Allen replied, shaking the man's hand. "The real America."

Jim Webb, on the other hand, has never run for office before and has yet to develop much of a public personality. His name recognition rating in Virginia hovers at around 40 percent, compared to Allen's 90 percent. Unlike Allen, who is expected to raise about $20 million, Webb is far behind in the fundraising race and his campaign organization is still ironing out the kinks. But Democrats in Washington, looking for a long-shot race that would give them a Senate majority, have great hopes for the war hero's chances in a state filled with military bases. "Webb is in a great position to bring Bush voters and Reagan Democrats back into the fold," said New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is running the Senate reelection efforts for Democrats, the morning after the primary. "George Allen is sweating."

Democratic leaders hope that Webb has an X-factor that will force Allen to defeat this November -- a hero's story. Despite an unpolished image, his macho swagger and patriotic pose were earned on the battlefield, not the football field. To make his point, Webb campaigns in scuffed combat boots. "The boots thing were actually my son's idea," Webb says, referring to his boy, Jimmy, a Marine like his father and about to ship off to Iraq. "He said, Why does this guy wear cowboy boots? Are there cowboys in Virginia?'"

On the morning of the Fourth of July, Webb spent an hour with firefighters from Dale City, who had begun the day at the local union hall with a breakfast of scrambled Egg Beaters and generously poured tequila sunrises. The plan was to get the juices flowing for the long hot fire truck ride in the local Independence Day parade. Webb didn't drink. "It's daunting," he said, standing outside the firefighter's union hall. "As much as I have been around politics all my life, I never realized how much money drives it ... It sort of sucks."

In recent polls, Webb trails Allen by anywhere from 6 to 19 points. According to just about any political observer in Virginia, the biggest factor in Webb closing that gap is money. Allen, with well-known White House ambitions, has a nearly endless supply, enough to blanket Virginia's expensive media markets for weeks. If Webb can't raise millions of dollars in the next two months, Allen will be the one to introduce him to Virginians, not as a war hero but as an elite Northerner who embraces flag burning, gay marriage and surrender in Iraq. This is not a fact that has escaped the notice of Allen's advisors. "The Webb campaign came out of the primary essentially broke," says Allen's political advisor, Dick Wadhams, a star Republican consultant who is known in political circles as heir apparent to Karl Rove. "That is the brutal truth."

In the month of June, for instance, Wadhams said the Allen campaign spent about $1 million on direct mail and television advertising, touting his record as a senator and boasting of support among blacks, a group that historically has shunned Allen. By contrast, Webb finished his June primary with almost no money in the bank and a number of new political war wounds. His primary opponent, Harris Miller, a high-tech lobbyists and party activist, had run a divisive, self-funded campaign against Webb. The Miller campaign accused Webb of being a closet Republican and employing an anti-Semitic cartoonist in a Webb flier that exaggerated Miller's slightly hooked nose. Miller supporters also criticized Webb for a speech he had given praising the bravery of Confederate soldiers and for an old article in which Webb had called affirmative action "state-sponsored racism," because its benefits did not also extend to underprivileged whites.

Steve Jarding, Webb's political consultant who helped elect Gov. Mark Warner in 2001, says he is not worried. He has been boasting that the campaign has recently put together a string of fundraisers that will put the Webb campaign in the running. As it stands Webb needs all the help he can get. At the beginning of July, Allen reported $6.6 million in his campaign kitty, compared to Webb's paltry $424,245. "We believe we absolutely can raise what we need to win," he said, before adding, "You don't need to raise dollar for dollar [with Allen]." The Webb campaign is counting on substantial support from the military families in Hampton Roads, the clump of cities in the southeast corner of the state that host myriad military bases, including the home port of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Democratic strategists also hope for high turnout among the ever-growing suburbs and exurbs of northern Virginia, which increasingly vote with a less conservative slant than Allen might hope. Though the state has not voted for a Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson, both of the last two governors have been Democrats.

But without money, demographic shifts don't win elections. In the early weeks of July, the money disparity between Webb and Allen was clearly evident on the campaign trail. Allen handed out glossy full-color pamphlets, while Webb tables distributed photocopies of their sparse glossy brochures. On the Fourth of July, Allen rode a horse in a parade in southern Virginia, showing off his cowboy boots, while Webb was slotted to attend three events in northern Virginia, the Dale City parade, the Fairfax parade and a Vienna pre-fireworks festival. But as soon as he left the union hall, things seemed to go wrong.

Because of an unidentified "logistical glitch" involving volunteers, Webb never joined the Dale City parade. By the time he got to Fairfax, the parade was halfway over, and Webb could be found listening to the complaints of a National Guard member who was outraged that Webb supporters were displaying pictures of soldiers killed in Iraq on the parade route. (Webb assured the voter that he would never use war dead for political ends, and promised to look into it.) Webb showed up at the Vienna festival just after noon, long before the crowds had turned out, and left after only an hour or so of walking the mostly empty playing field looking for people whose hands he could shake. Throughout the day, Webb and his staff passed dozens of roadside signs for George Allen, with hardly a single Webb for Senate sign in sight.

Many of his supporters are passionate and determined but not yet convinced he can pull it off. As Webb milled about the Vienna festival, Renneye Pike, a local real estate broker, came up to his campaign booth looking for a lawn sign she could put in front of her house. Like thousands of frustrated Democrats, she said she was sick of losing, and she was backing Webb because she thought he was the strongest candidate. But she said she still didn't know what his message was. "He has a little bit of time to come up with something," she said. "You have to have a platform."

Until recently, the 60-year-old Webb made a living as a writer and intellectual, a vocation that gives him a mastery of complexity, but not clear political messaging. On each of the major issues, Webb has staked out intellectually admirable, if nuanced, positions. He favors affirmative action for blacks, but says all other minority preference programs should also benefit poor whites. He favors a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in the next few years, but rejects congressional calls for a pullout deadline. He is in favor of securing the Southern border against illegal immigration and giving a path to citizenship for immigrants already in the country, but he is against expanding guest worker programs, which he considers a sop to corporate interests.

These are messages that pale before the three- and four-word slogans that Allen uses on the campaign trail. But Webb says he knows what he is up against. Allen and Wadhams, he says, are running a campaign right out of the Rove playbook. "The whole Rove strategy is you say, 'Is this guy a leader? Can he be trusted? Does he identify with people like me?'" Webb said. "They realize that the average American has about 30 seconds a day to spend on politics."

As it stands, Webb's 30-second strategy is to show off his combat boots and tie Allen to President Bush, whose unpopularity in this once deep-red state has been closely mirroring the national numbers. "George Allen has been with the president 97 percent of the time," he says, ad nauseam. If Webb finds a way to tell the larger story, Virginia voters may discover that he is one of the most interesting and unlikely Democrats running in 2006. Like his opponent, Webb has a long history of supporting the Republican Party. He served as Navy secretary for Reagan, voted twice against Bill Clinton (because of the former president's opposition to the Vietnam War), and even endorsed Allen in his first Senate race. He is the author of seven books, the last of which was a history of the Scots-Irish immigrants who populate the backwoods hills of Virginia. As Webb writes in his book, "Born Fighting," "The slurs stick to me ... Rednecks. Trailer-park trash. Racists. Cannon fodder. My ancestors. My people. Me."

If it were not for the attacks of Sept. 11 and the invasion of Iraq, he says he might still be a Republican, which makes him just a short hop from an Allen supporter. "It's not that national security pulls me to the Democrats," he explained, drawing a subtle distinction that Allen would never attempt. "It's that once the moral imperative that Republicans had on national security went away, why stay over there?" In September of 2002, months before the invasion, Webb wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post warning of the coming quagmire. "There is no exit strategy," he declared, at a time when most Democrats were supporting the preparations for war.

He said he has long embraced the Democratic message on economic fairness and social policy. He even claims that President Reagan once stood up for these bedrock Democratic values. "Here's the thing," Webb said. "Ronald Reagan was a Democrat. Then he became a Republican. If he was alive today, I think he would be a Democrat again. If you look at economic issues, this is not Ronald Reagan's Republican Party."

It is a sign of our current political era that one of the most exciting Democratic Senate candidates this year is running on the legacy of Ronald Reagan. It is even more telling that he is trailing behind a Republican opponent who is lifting George W. Bush's country bumpkin act. But if the past is prologue, the Virginia Senate race will not turn on a sober analysis of the issues. It will be an all-out war, filled with the dirty tricks and nasty attacks. In addition to Wadhams, Allen has hired Chris Lacivita, a former consultant to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which tarred Kerry's political biography in 2004. One Democratic strategist said he could imagine Republicans mounting all manner of front groups to attack Webb. "I would not be surprised if in a month or so there is a group of African-Americans -- African-Americans for Truth, or whatever -- attacking Jim Webb on race," the strategist said.

Such attacks could do great damage to Webb's campaign, depressing urban Democratic turnout in the same way that Webb hopes Bush's poll numbers depress rural turnout for Allen. But the nasty attacks are still just a matter of speculation. Less than four months out from the election, the only tea leaves to read can be found on the campaign trail. There, the Democratic hope for Virginia is still breaking in his campaign boots while the Republican cowboy prepares to ride off into the sunset.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

MORE FROM Michael Scherer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2006 Elections Jim Webb U.s. Senate Virginia