Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Sen. George Allen’s seat once seemed so safe that Democrats were searching for candidates to challenge him, but national heavy-hitters are now saying James H. Webb Jr.’s win in the Democratic primary Tuesday should have the Republicans running scared.

Mr. Webb, a former Republican who voted for Mr. Allen in 2000, has the full support of the local and national Democratic machines as he tries to unseat the incumbent in the November election, party leaders said yesterday.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) added the Virginia seat to its list of potential Republican grabs.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat who heads the DSCC, said primary voters bucked conventional wisdom and chose the more electable candidate by picking Mr. Webb over longtime local party activist Harris N. Miller.

“The victory by Jim Webb is a sure sign that Virginia is really ready to dump George Allen,” Mr. Schumer told reporters, noting that Mr. Webb attracts “Bush voters and Reagan Democrats.”

Mr. Miller, a technology lobbyist, won the backing of many state legislators, while Mr. Webb attracted Washington Democrats, including 2004 Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat. Mr. Miller and the local activists said they will join Mr. Webb in trying to beat Mr. Allen.

“I think he can win this thing,” said Virginia Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax County Democrat, who previously endorsed Mr. Miller.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Brian J. Moran, who remained neutral in the race, predicted that Democrats would rally around Mr. Webb. “We will be very united,” the Alexandria Democrat said.

Former Gov. Mark Warner, the state’s most popular politician, will lend his support to Mr. Webb, said Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls.

Mr. Warner, who also is exploring a presidential bid, didn’t endorse either candidate but raised money for both before the primary.

“The governor is going to do his part. He believes the senator is vulnerable,” Miss Qualls said.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who also didn’t endorse any candidate in the primary, said: “I look forward to working with [Mr. Webb] during the upcoming campaign.”

Mr. Allen, 54, has served as state delegate, a U.S. representative and Virginia governor, an office limited to one term by the state constitution. He ousted Democratic incumbent Sen. Charles S. Robb from his seat in Congress in 2000.

Mr. Webb, 60, a former Marine and decorated Vietnam veteran, was President Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy. He left the Republican Party because he opposes the war in Iraq, and he felt the party is too extreme on social issues. His 25-year-old son, Jim, is heading to Iraq later this year.

Mr. Webb, also a best-selling author, never has run for elected office.

Some Democrats said privately that Mr. Webb needs a campaign overhaul because his primary operation made him appear to be disorganized and less energized than Mr. Miller.

Mr. Schumer said the DSCC is working with all Senate campaigns to make sure they have top-notch staffs.

Mr. Webb will need help with fundraising. He had less than $220,000, as of May 24.

Mr. Allen already has dipped into his $7.5 million campaign war chest to air a television advertisement in the expensive Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads markets.

Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams said Mr. Webb had no chance at winning the primary before the national endorsements, which now make him “beholden” to Washington Democrats.

Mr. Allen, who led the Republican senate campaign arm in 2004 when the party strengthened its majority, has long predicted that national Democrats with a grudge against him will funnel cash into Virginia.

He has further attracted national Democratic ire by traveling to key states such as Iowa and New Hampshire in what many view as an early attempt to test the presidential waters for 2008.

Mr. Webb and Mr. Miller have criticized Mr. Allen for his national travel, a theme that is sure to continue through the campaign.

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