Tuesday, January 16, 2007

National Democratic leaders have selected Virginia Sen. James H. Webb Jr. to deliver the party’s response to President Bush’s State of the Union address next week.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Mr. Webb, a Vietnam War veteran, “understands personally how crucial it is to find a new direction in Iraq and begin to bring the war to a close.” Mr. Webb’s son, Jimmy, is a Marine serving in Iraq.

“In a call echoed by Americans across this nation, the people of Virginia sent Senator Webb to Congress to help take our country in a new direction,” Mr. Reid and Mrs. Pelosi said. “Senator Webb represents the sweeping demand for leaders who will put aside gridlock in Washington to deliver change at home and abroad.”

A former Navy secretary and early-warning voice against the 2003 Iraq invasion, Mr. Webb said he was honored to deliver the response and hoped Bush would discuss “fresh, creative solutions” that would “move the country forward.”

“I ran for the United States Senate to bring an experienced set of eyes to the problems that face our country, ranging from the need for a new direction in Iraq to assuring economic fairness for American workers,” Mr. Webb said.

Since ousting Sen. George Allen in November, Mr. Webb has continued to question Mr. Bush’s handling of the war, including the recent decision to send 21,500 additional troops to the region.

Mr. Webb’s selection to deliver the response also has fueled further speculation that Democrats plan to push harder to win Virginia, known as a “red state,” in the 2008 presidential election.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine delivered the Democratic response to the State of the Union last year.

Craig Shirley, a Republican strategist, said Democrats are smart to select Mr. Webb because it helps them get away from the perception that liberals from northern “blue states,” such as Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, rule the national party.

“Choosing Denver for the Democratic convention [in 2008] is the right thing to do, and picking centrist Democrats from red states is the right thing to do,” Mr. Shirley said. “Democrats want to widen their mainstream appeal, and one way to do that is to send a message to the rest of the world that they are drawing a spokesman for a red state that has elected quote-unquote moderate Democrats.”

Dave Saunders, a Democratic strategist working for presidential contender and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, seemed to agree.

“If the Democrats are trying to remove the [weak] factor from the public perception, they sent the right guy out there because [Mr. Webb] is a pure man,” he said.

Mr. Webb’s win tipped control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats and marked the party’s third consecutive victory in prominent statewide elections. It also stung Virginia Republicans, many of whom considered Mr. Allen their party’s modern-day patriarch.

Republicans and Democrats now say Virginia will be a battleground in the 2008 presidential election.

“In 2008, Democrats will come hard after Virginia’s 13 Electoral College votes,” Ed Gillespie, state Republican party chairman, said last week. “John Kerry’s campaign was here through July of 2004, and I guarantee you the Democrats’ nominee will stay through November in 2008, and we will know the joys of target-state status every time we turn on our television.”

Virginia has been a Republican stronghold in previous presidential contests. The last time the state supported a Democrat for president was in 1964, when President Johnson defeated Sen. Barry Goldwater, Arizona Republican.

“For Democrats to take Virginia in ‘08 would be nothing less than astonishing, but I think it is possible,” Mr. Shirley said.

Virginia’s Feb. 12, 2008 presidential primary also could play a hand in deciding the party’s nominee if a clear front-runner does not emerge from the January caucuses and primaries in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

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