Forks and tableware were clanging in the background at a luncheon in Arlington last week when Democratic candidate for the Senate James H. Webb walked in wearing a navy blue suit and his signature tan military boots.
Few noticed the clashing footwear, which has become a symbol of the first-time candidate’s campaign to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. George Allen. Virginia's junior Senator and former Governor was beleaguered this past week with charges of racial insensitivity. (See "Macaca Hits the Fan.")
With Allen’s campaign in damage control, Webb turned his attention Wednesday, Aug. 16, to national security in a speech to the Kiwanis Club of Arlington.
Webb, a former Navy secretary during the Reagan administration and a highly decorated combat Marine while serving in Vietnam, criticized Allen for blindly supporting President Bush’s policy decisions to invade and occupy Iraq.
"I cannot identify one iota of George Allen’s strategic vision on Iraq, except for talking points he’s been given by the administration," said Webb.
IN HIS SPEECH to about 80 club members and guests, Webb said he supports pulling troops out of Iraq to nearby countries in the short-term, if a coherent national security policy were in place.
Instead, he said, the Bush administration has left national security in "total disarray," which has made the Middle East more dangerous, fueled home-grown insurgency in Iraq and galvanized international terrorists.
"Al-Qaeda and other terrorists organizations have seen their ranks grow," said Webb, who came out early in opposition to the war in Iraq. "The current conditions in Lebanon are a complete failure of our Iraq policy and indeed our failed Mideast policy."
Claiming conditions in Iraq and the region continue to deteriorate, Webb faulted Allen for refusing to question or review the president’s policies.
He called Allen a "robot" for voting with the president 97 percent of the time.
"Our founding fathers intended the Senate to serve as a check on the presidency," said Webb, adding that members of Congress take an oath to uphold the Constitution, not the president. "I cannot say that about George Allen."
Allen, who voted for the war, has been critical of its execution at times.
Some in the audience felt the war in Iraq has wrongly taken the back seat in other elections across the country.
"I’m delighted to hear your vision on Iraq," said Derick Malis, a club member. Malis asked if more Democratic candidates should be campaigning against the war.
"When we go around, the number one issue of the country is how are we going to resolve the issue of Iraq," said Webb, whose criticism of the war has been the primary focus of his campaign.
"‘BORN FIGHTING’ — that’s a great campaign theme," said Warren Kane, 71, of Arlington, who then asked Webb how he would work with other members of Congress if elected.
Webb said that working with both parties, while proving difficult for both Allen and the president, is something he’d pursue.
Many in the crowd seemed impressed with Webb’s qualifications and background.
"I thought it was a very thoughtful talk and I’ll be sure to keep an eye on what he has to say," said Mary Anthony, president of the club, responding to Webb’s speech. "It sounds like he has good credentials."
After the speech, Webb stuck around for the Kiwanis Club’s 50-50 raffle drawing. According to recent polls, his chances for victory in November are nearing those odds.
Rasmussen Reports, which polled 500 likely voters Aug. 16 after Allen’s "macaca" gaffe, found the incumbent’s lead had slipped 6 percent since July. After that poll, Allen led Webb 47 to 42 percent.