updated 9/27/2006 11:30:00 AM ET 2006-09-27T15:30:00

Democratic Senate challenger Jim Webb declined to say definitively Tuesday whether he had ever used a common derogatory term to describe blacks, stepping carefully after watching his campaign rival confront charges of racism.

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“I don’t think that there’s anyone who grew up around the South that hasn’t had the word pass through their lips at one time or another in their life,” Webb told reporters.

Webb referred to his novel, “Fields of Fire,” which aides said includes occurrences of the n-word as part of character dialogue. But he added: “I have never issued a racial or ethnic slur.”

Asked for clarification of his original answer, spokeswoman Jessica Smith quoted Webb as saying, “I have never used that word in my general vocabulary or in any derogatory way.”

She declined to say whether he had ever used the word apart from when he wrote his book.

Row over Webb
Webb fielded questions on the issue after two days of racially charged controversy surrounding Sen. George Allen, a first-term Republican seeking re-election in what has become an unexpectedly close race.

A college teammate of the senator stirred controversy this week when he said that a generation ago, Allen frequently used the n-word when referring to blacks.

Ken Shelton, a receiver on University of Virginia teams quarterbacked by Allen in the early 1970s, also said his teammate once stuffed a severed deer head into a mailbox belonging to a family he knew was black. Slideshow: Virginia senate race

“The story and his comments and assertions in there are completely false,” Allen responded in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday.

“I don’t remember ever using that word, and it is absolutely false that that was ever part of my vocabulary.”

Last month, Allen’s use of the word “macaca” in referring to a Webb campaign volunteer of Indian descent caused an outcry. The word is considered an ethnic slur in some cultures, but Allen said he did not know that and had simply made up the word.

Webb avoiding commentary on Allen woes
Webb has generally avoided commenting on the controversy surrounding Allen, telling reporters it was irrelevant to his attempt to illustrate differences in leadership styles.

Webb is the son of a military family, and he moved frequently during his childhood. Smith said he spent considerable time in the South during childhood summers because his father’s family owned land in Virginia.

Webb campaigned during the day with John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate and a potential White House contender in 2008.

Edwards said the allegations lodged against Allen were “very troubling.” He noted that the senator has denied them and said voters will have to decide for themselves where the truth lies.

On Tuesday, political analyst Larry J. Sabato said he didn’t personally hear Allen use the epithet when they were classmates at Virginia. In a television interview a day earlier he had said he knew Allen had used the word.

Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press: “I didn’t personally hear GFA (Allen’s initials) say the n-word. My conclusion is based on the very credible testimony I have heard for weeks, mainly from people I personally know and knew in the ’70s.”

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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