Campaign Crawlers

Webb Auditions for Obama

On the trail in Virginia with an unusual tag team.

By 6.6.08

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BRISTOW, Va. -- Thousands of Barack Obama supporters gathered under the roof of the Nissan Pavillion amphitheater here in the sweltering heat to toast the freshly anointed presumptive Democratic nominee, but a major subplot was the joint appearance between Obama and Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), who is increasingly mentioned as a possible vice-presidential nominee.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, an early Obama backer, warmed up the crowd by noting that no Democratic presidential candidate had carried the commonwealth since 1964, and that there haven't been many presidential nominees campaigning here in recent election cycles, because "Republicans didn't need to and Democrats didn't want to."

But Kaine said that by choosing to kick-off the general election in earnest with a day of campaigning here, Obama was demonstrating that he intended to compete aggressively in the old Republican stronghold that has been trending Democratic in recent election cycles.

In addition to helping put Virginia in play, Webb, a former Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, could prove an able attack dog against John McCain on the Iraq War and help allay concerns about Obama's readiness to be commander in chief. He also has the ability to help win over the type of gun-owning, working class voters that Obama had a tough time with in the Democratic primary.

But he also comes with a lot of personal baggage, a history of controversial writings, and a reputation for having an arrogant, combustible, personality.

IF LAST NIGHT was Webb's tryout as a potential vice-presidential nominee, he may want to get some more batting practice.

With the fired up crowd in a celebratory mood, Webb's 10-minute speech began as a bit of a downer.

After noting that the day marked the 40th anniversary of his taking his oath as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, he recounted in a stern and dour tone the tragic assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It was odd to bring up, given the recent controversy over Hillary Clinton's comments on the RFK assassination, and the specter of a divided party heading into this year's convention.

For somebody mentioned as a potential number two for the candidate of hope, Webb's discussion of our current times seemed especially dark.

"We all know that the United States of 2008 is also a troubled and divided place -- quieter -- but in an equally disturbing way," he said, pronouncing the year as "twenty-oh-eight."

He recounted that "the turmoil of those earlier years convinced me and many others that we need to learn to love our country, even more deeply, for all of its terrible flaws..."

At times, his speech sounded like a repeat of Jimmy Carter's malaise address.

"The last eight years have been very hard on America," Webb said, using a familiar Democratic attack line. But typically, such a line is followed immediately by a rousing declaration that change is on the way. Not with Webb. Instead, he went on to say that the difficult times have also affected "our view of ourselves. Today, a terrible new set of doubts exists. They are far more fundamental than the earlier issues of war or even civil rights."

Coming on a day when absolutely nothing could rain on their parade, the speech received a positive reception from the crowd, especially when Webb praised Obama's leadership.

And if Obama's own speech is any indication, it sounds like Webb is being seriously considered as a running mate.

Obama lauded Webb for pushing the new GI Bill, touted his leadership in the Senate, and commended his hard work.

Obama said, "Looking forward, I can be proud to be fighting with him, alongside him." He added, "Let me tell you something, if you're in a fight -- and we're gonna be in a fight -- you want Jim Webb to have your back."

AFTER THE EVENT, I spoke to a number of attendees who were waiting in their seats until the parking lot traffic subsided. They were all energized by Obama, and had a generally good impression of Webb, but there were mixed sentiments as to whether he would make a good vice-presidential candidate.

Jacquese Pompey of Sterling said she thought an Obama-Webb ticket would be an "excellent idea."

"He's not as powerful of a speaker as Obama as far as encouraging the crowd and getting everybody going, but he's good," Pompey said.

Jerry Pender of Centreville thought Webb would theoretically be a good choice for vice president, but was iffy on the idea out of concern that Democrats would lose a Senate seat.

Others were ambivalent.

"When you think of a Jim Webb, somebody who was a veteran of service and a guy who has a reputation of being a fighter, if he was on the ticket, [Republicans] could no longer say Obama is just a soft guy who would sit around appeasing other countries," Reginald Williams of Suitland, Md., told me. But he still wasn't sold on the idea. "Webb, for some folks, he has that persona of being a bull in the china shop, and I don't know if that's a good thing for Obama to have on his ticket."

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Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein