- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

When James H. Webb Jr. resigned in 1988 as Navy Secretary after his push for a 600-ship Navy was abandoned, he was criticized by some as being bull-headed and hailed by others as principled.

That maverick attitude resurfaced in 2002 when he warned that an invasion of Iraq would be a “strategic blunder” and said that the Bush administration and “the band of neoconservatives … began beating the war drums on Iraq before the dust had even settled on the World Trade Center.”

Today, Mr. Webb, a Republican-turned-Democrat, continues to show that independent streak in what has become a closer-than-expected U.S. Senate race in Virginia. The outcome could decide which party will control the Senate.

With a week left before the Nov. 7 election, the latest poll shows Mr. Webb is statistically tied with Sen. George Allen, whom he endorsed in 2000.

Four things motivated Mr. Webb, 60, to run for office — researching his ancestors in his latest book, “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,” the Iraq war, the deepening divide along economic lines and the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina.

The self-described nonpolitician entered the race Feb. 8 with no money or staff. His primary support came from bloggers, who thought his family’s roots in Southwest Virginia, Republican past and military resume would play well with disenchanted Republicans and centrists.

Since then, Mr. Webb has displayed the stern sense of principle that led to his resignation as Navy Secretary under President Reagan and his criticism of President Bush at a time when most shied away from opposing the administration.

“I’m not going to change what I believe in order to get a vote or get money,” Mr. Webb said.

Mr. Webb wants to increase the minimum wage, federally fund stem-cell research, provide illegal aliens with a path to citizenship and give 5 percent tax breaks and the benefits of the old GI Bill to those military members who serve honorably.

Unlike many Democrats, Mr. Webb is a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association, supports Second Amendment rights and travels in a camouflaged Jeep Cherokee that often draws a thumbs up from passing motorists.

“Jim Webb is going to enlighten Washington,” said Michael “Mac” McGarvey, a radio operator in Mr. Webb’s military unit during the Vietnam War. “If he is elected, they are going to see honesty like they have not seen honesty in a long time. If he doesn’t believe it, it won’t happen.”

The best-selling author has discouraged some Democrats, who want him to adopt a persona more befitting a politician and lead a more traditional campaign. They think he could do more glad-handing and emphasize his command of a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam, where he witnessed more bloodshed than most people do in a lifetime.

But the decorated Vietnam War veteran is not comfortable doing so.

They also think Mr. Webb could win voters by sharing the story of his son Jimmy, a 24-year-old Marine lance corporal now fighting in one of the bloodiest regions of Iraq.

But Mr. Webb will go only as far as sporting his son’s combat boots on the campaign trail, saying, “If you’re not waking up every day thinking about it — it is just different.”

Mr. Webb said he does not want to draw any more attention to his son because he does not want him viewed differently from his fellow Marines.

“I want to emphasize that I’m going through the same mental and emotional process as thousands of other parents,” he said. “The only difference is that I’m a public figure.”

His sense of principle has also caused him some headaches.

Since August, Naval Academy female graduates have attacked him for a 1979 magazine article he wrote questioning the place of women in the military and their ability to lead men in combat.

“There is no question that James Webb’s attitudes and philosophy were major factors behind the unnecessary abuse and hazing received by me and my fellow women midshipmen,” said retired Cmdr. Kathleen Murray, a 1984 graduate.

He defended his record, stressing that he tripled the number of operational positions open to women as Navy secretary.

Still, the attack hurt Mr. Webb in the polls.

A poll conducted by The Washington Post earlier this month showed voters think Mr. Allen would do a better job than Mr. Webb on “issues important to women.”

However, there are Democrats and Republicans who embrace Mr. Webb’s independence and see him as the antithesis of Mr. Allen, who has agreed with Mr. Bush’s policies 97 percent of the time.

“I see Allen as a defender of the status quo, and I see Webb as a critical thinker who is running as much out of a sense of duty as anything else,” said Dan Franken, a Republican and former commanding officer of the Naval Station Norfolk.

Other voters agree.

Republican Gayle Steinberg, 63, said she supports Mr. Webb because she is “really tired of the ultra-conservative movement, and I like his ideas.”

“I consider him more of a moderate Democrat,” the Bristol, Va., resident said. “He’s getting my husband’s vote, too, and he always has voted Republican.”


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