At a recent White House reception for freshman members of Congress, Virginia's newest senator tried to avoid President Bush. Democrat James Webb declined to stand in a presidential receiving line or to have his picture taken with the man he had often criticized on the stump this fall. But it wasn't long before Bush found him.
"How's your boy?" Bush asked, referring to Webb's son, a Marine serving in Iraq.
"I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President," Webb responded, echoing a campaign theme.
"That's not what I asked you," Bush said. "How's your boy?"
"That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," Webb said coldly, ending the conversation on the State Floor of the East Wing of the White House.
Webb was narrowly elected to the U.S. Senate this month with a brash, unpolished style that helped win over independent voters in Virginia and earned him support from national party leaders. Now, his Democratic colleagues in the Senate are getting a close-up view of the former boxer, military officer and Republican who is joining their ranks.
If the exchange with Bush two weeks ago is any indication, Webb won't be a wallflower, especially when it comes to the war in Iraq. And he won't stick to a script drafted by top Democrats.
"I'm not particularly interested in having a picture of me and George W. Bush on my wall," Webb said in an interview yesterday in which he confirmed the exchange between him and Bush. "No offense to the institution of the presidency, and I'm certainly looking forward to working with him and his administration. [But] leaders do some symbolic things to try to convey who they are and what the message is."
In the days after the election, Webb's Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill went out of their way to make nice with Bush and be seen by his side. House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sat down for a lunch and photo opportunity with Bush, as did Democratic leaders in the Senate.
Not Webb, who said he tried to avoid a confrontation with Bush at the White House reception but did not shy away from one when the president approached.
The White House declined to discuss the encounter. "As a general matter, we do not comment on private receptions hosted by the president at the White House," said White House spokeswoman Dana M. Perino.
Webb said he has "strong ideas," but he also insisted that -- as a former Marine in Vietnam -- he knows how to work in a place such as the Senate, where being part of a team is important.
He plans to push for a new GI bill for soldiers who have served in the days since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but not as a freshman senator. He has approached the Democratic leadership about getting senior legislators to sponsor the bill when the 110th Congress convenes in January.
A strong backer of gun rights, Webb may find himself at odds with many in his party. He expressed support during the campaign for a bill by his opponent, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), that would allow concealed weapons in national parks. But an aide said this week that Webb will review Allen's legislation.
"There are going to be times when I've got some strong ideas, but I'm not looking to simply be a renegade," he said. "I think people in the Democratic Party leadership have already begun to understand that I know how to work inside a structure."
His party's leaders hope that he means it.
Top Democratic senators, including incoming Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), had invested their money and prestige in Webb before he won the party primary in June. His victory was also theirs, but now they have to make sure he's not a liability.
"He's not a typical politician. He really has deep convictions," said Schumer, who headed the Senate Democrats' campaign arm. "We saw this in the campaign. We would have disagreements. But when you made a persuasive argument, he would say, 'You're right.' I am truly not worried about it. He understands the need to be part of a team."
One senior Democratic staff member on Capitol Hill, who spoke on condition that he not be identified so he could speak freely about the new senator, said that Webb's lack of political polish was part of his charm as a candidate but could be a problem as a senator.
"I think he's going to be a total pain. He is going to do things his own way. That's a good thing and a bad thing," the staff member said. But he said that Webb's personality may be just what the Senate needs. "You need a little of everything. Some element of that personality is helpful."
Webb has started to put himself out front. On "Meet the Press" last week, he dispensed with the normal banter with host Tim Russert to talk seriously about Iraq and the need for economic justice in the United States.
‘Not a backslapper’
He announced yesterday that he has hired Paul J. Reagan, a communications director for former governor Mark R. Warner (D) and a former chief of staff for U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). It will be Reagan's job to help his boss navigate the intricacies of Washington and Capitol Hill without losing the essence of his personality.
"The relationships he has built over his long career will serve me well," Webb said in a statement yesterday.
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who campaigned hard to get Webb elected, said yesterday that the first-time officeholder doesn't have the finesse of most experienced politicians.
"He is not a backslapper," Kaine said. "There are different models that succeed in politics. There's the hail-fellow-well-met model of backslapping. That's not his style."
But Kaine said that Webb's background, including a stint as Ronald Reagan's Navy secretary, will make him an important -- if unpredictable -- voice on the war in Iraq.
"There are no senators who have that everyday anxiety that he has as a dad with a youngster on the front lines. That gives him gravitas and credibility on this issue," Kaine said. "People in the Senate, I'm sure, will agree with him or disagree with him on issue to issue. But they won't doubt that he's coming at it from a real sense of duty."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.