Arlington’s top Democrats have begun picking sides in the race between the two Northern Virginia residents who are hoping to unseat Sen. George Allen in November’s election.
IN RECENT weeks many of Arlington’s state legislators, County Board members, School Board representatives and other elected officials have publicly endorsed either technology executive Harris Miller or former secretary of the Navy James Webb. The two men square off in a statewide primary on June 13.
Both candidates have been stridently courting county residents — who gave Democrat Timothy Kaine 74 percent of the vote in last fall’s gubernatorial election — and have spoken separately at the Arlington Democratic Committee’s monthly meetings earlier this year.
Yet the two contenders could hardly have more contrasting resumes and political backgrounds, and offer Arlington Democrats with a stark choice in who they want to challenge the incumbent Allen, who is considering running for the White House in 2008.
Miller is a long-time party insider, with strong ties to many Arlington politicians from his days heading the Fairfax County Democratic branch. Most of his professional background is in running small businesses and serving as a computer-industry lobbyist.
Webb, on the other hand, is a former Republican who endorsed Allen six years ago when he defeated Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb. Besides a successful career in the Marine Corps and as a journalist, Webb has written six novels.
"There is a clear choice here," said County Board member Jay Fisette, who has endorsed Webb. "One has been involved with the Democrats for a long time. The other was a Republican who became disenchanted and now says its time for people to come back to the Democrats," whom Webb supported before he returned from Vietnam.
REGARDLESS of who wins the nomination, local Democrats believe that Allen is increasingly vulnerable and say that either Webb or Miller can ride a groundswell of anti-Republican sentiment to victory at the polls.
"Nationally things have shifted quite a bit," said County Board member Paul Ferguson. "If this trend continues, and people decide they really want change, then Allen will be in trouble."
A new Zogby International Poll conducted for The Wall Street Journal found that Allen may be more susceptible than many pundits originally thought.
In a head-to-head contest the poll found that Allen beats Webb 48.9 percent to 41.7 percent, while the Senator would defeat Miller 49.9 percent to 38 percent. Those numbers are surprisingly close, seeing as how most Virginians have yet to tune into the contest and neither challenger is a household name, Democratic leaders said.
At the moment it seems that Webb has a slight edge in what is expected to be a tight primary contest. Webb claimed 58 percent of the vote in an informal March straw poll conducted at a Fairfax County fund-raiser, Miller’s political home turf.
Yet primaries tend to play toward a party’s core base and draw the faithful. Miller has spent the past two decades campaigning for fellow Democrats and is well-known and respected throughout state party circles.
"His long-standing support for Democratic values and diversity make him the strongest candidate to take on Allen," said Del. Adam Ebbin, who first met Miller in 1984. "He has the experience and tenacity to be a good senator."
Miller has already lined up the support of several influential members of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, as well as Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, Del. Kris Amundson, Del. Vivian Watts and Sen. Janet Howell.
Whereas Webb switched parties after becoming disillusioned with the direction the Bush administration has taken the country, Miller has been an outspoken party activist for years.
Some Democrats said they are wary of Webb’s newfound Democratic loyalties and wonder how he will vote on controversial issues if elected. Many also wonder if he will be able to effectively attack an opponent he once publicly backed.
"Everybody loves a convert, but that doesn’t mean you give him the solo in the church choir," said Del. Bob Brink, who is a Miller supporter.
FOR SOME Democrats, like County Board member Fisette, Webb’s former Republican credentials are an asset and proof of his electability come November.
"Webb will have broad appeal across the commonwealth and across the political spectrum," Fisette said.
In a speech to Arlington Democrats earlier this month Webb stressed that it was "time for people to return to the Democratic party," just as he was doing.
Only someone with crossover appeal like Webb has a chance of unseating a popular incumbent, said Arlington Treasurer Frank O’Leary.
"What Democrats hunger and thirst for is winning back the state," O’Leary added. "We have a long way to go … but Webb can bring in outsiders."
Webb’s military background and strong commitment to national security issues helped sway School Board member Ed Fendley to his side. The former secretary of the Navy will bring thousands of veterans with him to the Democratic party, which could well be the difference come November, Fendley said.
Arlington Democrats interviewed said that each candidate might follow the campaign model of the two Democrats to have achieved recent statewide success: Mark Warner and Kaine.
Miller is expected to follow the recipe that Kaine employed this past election season, courting swing voters in places like Prince William and Loudoun counties. Webb, meanwhile, might follow the playbook of Warner and appeal to rural voters and those in the southwestern part of the state.
Whoever wins the primary faces an uphill battle in the fund-raising department, as Allen has already accumulated a $7 million war chest and boasts a burgeoning national reputation fueled by regular appearances on the Sunday talk shows.
Board member Ferguson said that thanks to Miller’s strong ties to the technology community — similar to Warner during his gubernatorial bid — he will have little trouble raising sufficient funds.
O’Leary retorts that a Webb victory would put the senate race in the national spotlight and would lead to a nationwide Democratic fund-raising effort in order to derail Allen’s presidential aspirations before they get off the ground.
-Additional reporting by Brian McNeill