Will State Democrats Back D.C.'S Horse? ; Virginia Voters in Tuesday's Senate Primary Weigh Who They like - and Who Can Oust the GOP Incumbent

Article excerpt

War hero and former Reagan Navy secretary James Webb is the name that Senate Democrats hope will lead the ticket against Republican Sen. George Allen in this fall's election, because they're convinced he could win.

"He's our best hope for defeating Allen in November," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in a statement last week.

But it's not clear that Virginia Democrats expected to turn out in Tuesday's primary election got the memo.

At an annual dinner on Friday, not a hint of applause from Arlington County Democrats greeted Mr. Webb's announcement that 13 Democratic senators had "stood up and endorsed my candidacy."

"I'm a yellow dog Democrat," explained retired teacher Jean Barton, a Democratic Party activist since the 1960s, in a reference to Southern Democrats' historical pattern of voting for their party's candidates whether they like them or not. "I like to dance with the guy who brought me."

That guy would be high-tech lobbyist and consultant Harris Miller, who was chairing the Fairfax County Democratic Committee when Mr. Webb, a Reagan Democrat, joined the Reagan administration.

"I've known [Mr. Harris] for 20-plus years. He's a Democrat whose values I share," says Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington, Va., who chairs the state Senate Democratic Caucus.

"It wasn't easy to be a Democrat in Virginia in the 1980s," Mr. Miller told a hometown crowd in the state's most liberal district. He said he has driven more than 24,000 campaign-trail miles in his "hybrid vehicle" since January. He has also contributed nearly $1 million of his own money to his campaign, more than double what Webb has raised for this fight.

But if Webb were to pull off a primary victory, he could expect a surge of national funding to defeat Senator Allen, who is also a probable 2008 presidential contender.

"Webb would be a candidate that Allen cannot afford to ignore," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Webb can serve as a very useful standard-bearer for the Democratic Party nationally, not just in Virginia. He's exactly the image that Democrats need to project to win in some red states."

Allen, elected to the Senate in 2000, is no longer a sure thing in Virginia, especially if state Democratic voters go with Webb as the challenger, says Jennifer Duffy, who handicaps Senate races for the Cook Political Report.

"Virginia is changing," she says. "It is not a solidly red state anymore. …