Many people across the country first heard about decorated Vietnam veteran and best-selling author James Webb's bid to unseat U.S. Sen. George Allen (R) earlier this month on Comedy Central's satirical news show The Colbert Report.
Pointing out that Webb is a former Republican who actually endorsed Allen six years ago, the show's host Stephen Colbert asked, "How many flip-flop ads does your opponent need to do to destroy you?"
Webb chuckled for a moment, but quickly turned serious.
When Webb returned from Vietnam, he said, he saw the Democratic Party as too weak on national defense and instead joined the GOP. Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, the Republican-led direction of the country has left him outraged.
"It's time for a lot of people to come back to the Democratic Party," Webb said.
Webb, a 60-year-old former U.S. Marine lives in Falls Church and works in Arlington.
From 1984 to 1987, he served as assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy until 1988. He has written six military thriller novels and a non-fiction book, "Born Fighting," about the rise of Scots-Irish people in America.
During his campaign, Webb said, the issues of national security and defense will play prominent roles.
He sees the Iraq war as a "fundamental strategic error," that never should have occurred.
"We should never be an occupying power in that part of the world," Webb said. "We've got to create the right formula for us to leave. But the Bush Administration has never even said unequivocally that they have no long-term plans occupy Iraq."
Webb also plans to campaign on the notion that the United States has become increasingly unfair socially and economically.
"The people at the top have never had it better, but the people at the other end have never had it so tough," he said.
A SELF-DESCRIBED populist "Jacksonian Democrat," Webb believes the government exists to protect and serve ordinary Americans.
"I want to represent the people who Jackson called the humble members of society — the farmers, the mechanics and laborers," Webb said.
Like Andrew Jackson, the founder of the modern Democratic Party, Webb sees himself as a former soldier determined to do what he believes is right, not necessarily what is politically expedient.
"He had the courage to make his own way," Webb said. "That's what I believe too."
Under President George W. Bush — strongly backed by Allen — the federal government has forgotten its task to represent all people, Webb said. Jobs have been outsourced, the nation is falling behind other countries in math and science education and the Bush Administration's fiscal policies are creating a permanent underclass in poverty, he said.
The Bush administration has routinely implemented its policies by overstepping its authority, usually with little resistance from Congress, he said.
As examples, Webb cited the Bush administration's wiretapping of American telephone calls without warrants and the administration's support of the Dubai Ports World deal, which would have handed over U.S. ports without Congressional approval.
"This campaign isn't really about George Allen," Webb said. "I'm just so concerned about the fact that the Congress has just become a rubber stamp," he said.
Allen, Webb said, has done nothing in the last six years except be "a mouthpiece for the Bush Administration."
A spokesman for Allen did not return telephone calls for comment.
THERE IS LITTLE question that Allen, a one-term Republican incumbent and possible 2008 presidential contender, will be tough to beat.
Allen, a former governor and son of the legendary Redskins football coach, has $6 million in his campaign war chest and enjoys high popularity ratings around the commonwealth. A Feb. 14 non-partisan poll by Rasmussen Reports found that 61 percent of Virginians view Allen favorably. In the poll, Allen led Webb by 49 percent to 37 percent.
But some political observers point out it is too early for poll numbers to mean much. If Webb runs an aggressive campaign, Allen could have a challenge on his hands, said George Mason University politics professor Toni-Michelle Travis.
"Patriotism, military service — that levels the playing field in Virginia," Travis said.
U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) has known Webb for years, as their sons grew up together. When their boys played t-ball on the same team, Davis was the head coach and Webb was the third-base coach.
"I consider Jim a friend. He's contributed a lot to this country," Davis said. "He's got the resume, but translating a resume into a candidacy is not an easy task. George Allen is a very formidable senator who's done a pretty good job."
U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) said he doubts anyone can defeat Allen in the Nov. 7 election. "Can Webb win? No. But that doesn't mean he shouldn't try," he said.
WEBB MUST compete for a chance to face Allen, however. He will face Fairfax County technology businessman Harris Miller in the June 13 Democratic primary.
If a March 17 straw poll at Fairfax County Chairman Gerry Connolly's (D) St. Patrick's Day fundraiser is any indication, Webb has amassed a strong following among Democratic activists. He defeated Miller in last week's vote 58 percent to 42 percent.
Miller, a 53-year-old McLean resident and former Fairfax County Democratic Committee chairman, has been endorsed by several Northern Virginia politicians, including Del. Kris Amundson (D-44), Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31), Sen. Janet Howell (D-32), Sen. Toddy Puller (D-36) and Del. Vivian Watts (39).
For his part, Webb has been endorsed by former delegate Chap Petersen (D), of Fairfax City, and by former U.S. congresswoman Leslie Byrne (D), of Falls Church.
"He's going to bring a lot of people back into the fold of the Democratic Party," Byrne said.
If Webb wins the Democratic nomination, his name will appear on the same ballot as a Constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Virginia.
Webb said he supports civil unions for same-sex couples. "The marriage question to me is fundamentally a religious question," he said.
THOUGH IN ITS early stages, Webb's campaign has stepped on some toes.
Connolly, one of the highest-ranking Democrats in Northern Virginia, complained that Webb had not called him to talk about his candidacy.
"You would think that if someone wants to run for a party's nomination, they would contact party leaders," Connolly said. "Last time I checked, I was the top Democrat representing the largest jurisdiction in Virginia. Gee, maybe he ought to call."
Webb acknowledged his lack of political experience, saying "I'm not a political guy in the traditional sense. I hope what they'll come to understand is that my coming back to the Democratic Party will bring more people into the party."