Image: James H. Webb
Caleb Jones  /  AP
Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful James H. Webb, left, speaks as former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, back, listens during a campaign fundraiser in Arlington, Va., on May 11.
updated 5/29/2006 3:51:12 PM ET 2006-05-29T19:51:12

Thirty-seven summers ago, in the swelter of An Hua Basin, Marine Lt. James H. Webb saw more bloodshed and death than most people see in a lifetime.

Since his decorated tenure in Vietnam, Webb has added hitches as President Reagan’s Navy secretary, an Emmy-winning journalist and author of best-selling, military-suspense novels to his made-for-the-movies biography.

Why, then, suddenly run this year as a Democrat to unseat Sen. George Allen, a Republican former governor whom Webb endorsed just six years ago?

“When I look at where this administration has taken its own party, I cannot help but think about the pendulum of history,” Webb said. “The pendulum has swung, I think, as far as it can swing given the principles this party had once espoused.”

Webb says Allen is part of an arrogant Republican majority in Washington bent on repeating in Iraq the blunders that killed so many of his buddies in Vietnam a generation ago.

Fiscal governance complaints
He accuses President Bush, whom he backed in 2000, of betraying conservative fiscal governance by pushing the federal debt toward $9 trillion. He claims the GOP, his former party, and Allen in particular are Bush’s eager accomplices.

“We really need to get back to a time when the members of Congress will stand up to an administration that is abusing its constitutional privileges,” Webb said.

Allen campaign spokesman Dick Wadhams dismissed Webb’s criticism with a chuckle, a rhetorical question his only reply: “So is Jim Webb still a Democrat today or did he switch back over to being a Republican?”

Just three months into his first run for elected office, Webb is still learning how to be a candidate. He can seem ill at ease in a crowd; anger sometimes flashes through.

After the taping of a contentious television talk show in Norfolk with Webb and his rival for the Democratic nod, former technology industry lobbyist Harris Miller, reporters asked each if he would support the other as the nominee. The primary is June 13.

As Webb began his response, Miller interrupted. Webb glared at him.

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“Harris, if you’ll shut your mouth, I’ll answer the question,” Webb snapped. “If you win, I will support you.”

A credible challenge on Iraq
Webb, 60, is powerfully built and square-jawed with a close crop of thick auburn hair, a mischievous grin and intense gray eyes. In a deliberate counterpoint to Allen’s trademark cowboy boots, Webb always wears buff-colored desert combat boots like those his son will wear as a Marine rifleman in Iraq this fall.

If he defeats Miller, Webb brings a credible challenge on the deadly Iraq conflict into the fall campaign against Allen, whose 2008 presidential ambitions could be ruined by a poor showing this November.

In Vietnam, Webb commanded a Marine rifle company in 1969 in some of the war’s bloodiest fighting. He was awarded two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, the Navy Cross and the Silver Star.

“Thirty-seven years ago this week, over a two-week period of time, we were in about 12 battles and lost a lot of guys,” said Michael “Mac” McGarvey, a radio operator in Webb’s unit who lost his right arm to enemy fire. He’s now Webb’s wheel man, driving his camouflage-painted Jeep sport utility vehicle.

An illustrious career
In 1984, Reagan made Webb an assistant secretary of defense. The Naval Academy graduate became secretary of the Navy three years later, but he quit in 1988 rather than sign off on a budget-cutting move to downsize the Navy fleet.

Webb’s experiences informed six novels, including “Rules of Engagement,” which was adapted into a film starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. In 2004, his first nonfiction book, “Born Fighting,” detailed the history of America’s Scots-Irish, including his own soldier-ancestors who fought in the Civil War.

Allen has no military service, but he’s prepared to take on Webb’s record if necessary. A top Allen adviser, Christopher J.  LaCivita, was the mastermind behind Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of Vietnam veterans who made unsubstantiated allegations challenging Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s record of wartime heroism.

Webb entered the race late—in February—betting that his portfolio, his shiny military record and his populist views would bring middle-class conservatives back to the Democratic Party.

A similar path to Gov. Warner’s
It’s comparable to the path popular former Gov. Mark Warner charted in 2001. The Democrat sponsored a NASCAR car, supported gun owners and promised jobs for downtrodden mill, mining and tobacco towns to win areas Allen and Bush dominated in 2000. Warner is exploring a 2008 presidential bid, and the architect of his gubernatorial triumph, Democratic strategist Steve Jarding, now runs Webb’s campaign.

Webb’s first challenge, however, is to win over more Democratic insiders and activists in the primary than Miller, 54, a 30-year party loyalist with deep ties to many key state Democratic leaders.  Webb clocks his time as a Democrat in months.

Black Democratic legislators endorsed Miller, citing columns Webb wrote criticizing affirmative action. Retired Gen. Claudia Kennedy, the Army’s first three-star female general, endorsed Miller because of Webb’s long-ago writings and comments questioning women’s fitness for combat.

But mostly, Miller assails Webb’s Republican past, his endorsement of Allen over Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb and his criticisms of President Clinton.

“What didn’t Jim Webb like about the Clinton presidency, the peace or the prosperity?” Miller asks at almost every Democratic gathering.

Miller appeared to be closing in on the nomination until Webb got some outside help on May 11.

Five senior Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, had just endorsed Webb. Eleven of Robb’s former top aides forgave Webb for backing Allen and endorsed Webb. Warner hosted a $125,000 fundraiser for Webb.

Warner has also raised money for Miller and is neutral in the primary, but his appearance with Webb was a critical signal to Virginia Democrats that Webb is one of them.

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