- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2006

Since the first day of his U.S. Senate campaign in Virginia, Democrat James H. Webb Jr. has described himself as a nonpolitician.

And the self-description rings true in his performance on the hustings.

The decorated Vietnam War veteran’s stiff and stern style of retail politics has been on display since his announcement in February that he would try to unseat Sen. George Allen, one of the state’s most polished politicians.

“The idea that you have to go out and touch people and shake hands and warm up to total strangers, that was a bit of a shock to him at first, but he has warmed up to it,” Mr. Webb’s longtime friend Nelson Jones told The Washington Times. “People who know Jim know he is a shy guy.”

On the campaign trail, the former Navy secretary is a far cry from former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who is arguably the state’s most personable public figure.

With his toothy smile, Mr. Warner runs to the crowd and shakes hands, often sweats through shirts and hardly ever passes up a chance to kiss a baby.

Mr. Webb gives firm handshakes, but at times needs a reminder to smile in photographs. He has a catchy belly laugh, but it rarely is heard in public. He thrives on foreign-policy issues, but sometimes loses people accustomed to candidates rattling off sound bites.

“With politics, [Mr. Webb] is more of a policy guy, an intellectual, rather than a politician,” state Sen. Robert Creigh Deeds, Bath Democrat, told The Times.

At a Memorial Day parade in Falls Church, Mr. Webb, 60, appeared uncomfortable walking before a crowd of supporters chanting “Jim Webb for Senate.”

Following the lead of former Delegate J. Chapman Petersen, a Democrat, Mr. Webb gradually found a stride more fitting of a politician. He sporadically shook hands and said, “Hello, I’m Jim Webb.”

“Sometimes you think if he was more of a glad-hander that might help him in some situations, but that is just not his personality,” Mr. Petersen said.

Though Mr. Webb touts Andrew Jackson’s philosophy of “measuring the health of a society at its base, not at its top,” he sometimes struggles to direct his message toward the working-class voters he targets.

For example, while former President Bill Clinton describes what he calls Republican fear-mongering as a “mangy old dog” that won’t hunt, Mr. Webb dubs it “classic Rovian strategy.” The latter is a reference to White House adviser Karl Rove.

And at a recent banquet in Norfolk benefiting the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, some in the audience thought Mr. Webb’s speech was geared more toward Capital Beltway insiders than those in southeastern Virginia.

At the Oct. 9 debate, Mr. Allen efficiently answered questions about such issues as the war in Iraq, while Mr. Webb rarely smiled, made little eye contact with the camera and often scanned his notes.

However, while Mr. Webb answered reporters’ questions after the debate, Mr. Allen hurriedly left the room with his wife, Susan, who barely kept up with his pace.

Democrats say Mr. Webb’s public persona is a double-edged sword: It hurts his ability to connect with people who see him as being too distant, while it helps him with those who see him as the antithesis of Mr. Allen’s “good old boy” image.

That image and Mr. Allen’s missteps have made the race a tossup.

“Whether [Mr. Webb’s public persona] translates into a win, we will see,” Mr. Petersen said.

• Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.


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