Jim Webb Makes His Mark On Congress

Sen. Jim Webb isn't good with sound bites. When the freshman Democrat from Virginia is asked about his recent trip to Iraq and the state of the troop surge, he sounds more like a professor of Mideast history than a politician looking for TV time. His four-pronged answer spans the globe, touching on international terrorism, al-Anbar province, the Kurds, and the rift among Shiite Muslims. "There are a lot of pieces in motion," says the former marine, a combat veteran.

It's that depth of experience and nuance of understanding that have won over so many fellow senators since Webb upset Republican incumbent George Allen last year. "He's highly respected on both sides of the aisle because he knows what he's talking about," says Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a fellow Vietnam War veteran. "You agree or disagree with him on issues, but he's always prepared, informed, articulate, and straightforward."

Webb's ascension has surprised some Washington insiders who wondered whether the maverick with the prickly personality would be a good fit for the Senate, where teamwork is valued. Support for those concerns came quickly, when Webb engaged in a testy exchange with President Bush at a White House reception last year. When Bush asked about Webb's son, a marine then serving in Iraq, the senator said tersely: "That's between me and my boy, Mr. President."

Short list. Yet the incident only bolstered Webb's standing among war critics and earned him a position as the Democrats' spokesman against the administration's Iraq war policy. Now, Webb is rumored to be on the short list of potential running mates for the Democratic presidential nominee--a distinction virtually unheard of for someone with less than two years of experience in any political office.

But when Democrats picked Webb to respond to Bush's State of the Union address this year, his passionate and authoritative rebuttal, weaving the nation's military commitment with his own, ensured his spot in the limelight. He won coveted seats on the Foreign Relations, Armed Services, and Veterans' Affairs committees.

With the Navy Cross and other prestigious medals, Webb brings a certain authority to military issues. But what really have caused his colleagues to take notice are his curiosity and intellect; he has been writing about strategic issues for decades. Webb has authored eight books, including the popular 1978 Vietnam War novel Fields of Fire. (He also speaks Vietnamese and is married to a Vietnamese-American woman.) A former journalist, he won an Emmy for his PBS coverage of the U.S. marines in Beirut. "I've never been bored," Webb says about his multiple careers.

Webb was an early dissenter from the 2002 decision to invade Iraq. "Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade and stay," he wrote right before the Senate voted to give the president authority to begin military operations.

Yet his legislative efforts on Iraq have hit some snags. His proposal to increase troop leave times failed to win enough votes in July. Webb had hoped that Republican Sen. John Warner, also of Virginia, would support the measure and help bring other GOP senators on board. With Republicans reluctant to give the Democrats any victories on Iraq, it didn't happen. "I was disappointed," says Webb. "But I totally understand. He's a Republican."

Packing heat. On other matters, Webb exhibits an independent streak that can get him in trouble. One of his staffers was arrested in March for carrying one of Webb's guns and two loaded magazines into a Senate office building. Webb calls the incident a mix-up, and the charges were dismissed. But Webb used the controversy to highlight his support for gun owners' rights--a stand that puts him at odds with most of his party.

Still, Webb says he's an unwavering Democrat, who started as a Republicanonly because he embraced the GOP's position on national security. "I was never comfortable with the Republican Party on issues of economic fairness and social justice," he says, describing the Depression-era poverty of his mother's family in Arkansas. That mix of economic populism and a strong military background appears to appeal to many Virginian voters. But keeping his seat may be a battle if his approval ratings among Virginians remain as they are, around 49 percent.

Does Webb have what it takes to be selected as a vice presidential candidate? Would he even consider the post? His answer is predictable: "I like the political independence of being in the Senate," he says. "It's really where my mind is right now."

Still, the buzz can't hurt. Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress with the American Enterprise Institute, thinks it's unlikely that a presidential candidate would pick someone with so little political experience. "But having said that," he says, "there aren't many freshman senators who get on the short list for VP. Who knows what lies ahead?"

By Danielle Knight