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RICHMOND--Virginia Democrats have been dying for a chance to unseat U.S. Sen. George Allen.
In just over a week, they'll pick their latest champion in that effort.
Democrats are holding a primary election June 13 to choose between two candidates for the party's nomination to run for the Senate against Allen.
On the one hand they have Harris Miller, a corporate lobbyist whose campaign funds include a lot of his own money, and who is able to afford TV ads, mailers and phone calls to voters.
On the other hand is Jim Webb, an author, Vietnam veteran and former secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, who has less money and less advertising presence than Miller.
They have a few things in common--they both disagree with the war in Iraq, for instance, but want a clear exit strategy rather than yanking America out of Iraq immediately. They both want to see the No Child Left Behind Act fully funded, and they both think the state needs more federal help with transportation.
But they differ on other issues. Webb, for instance, wants ethics reform that would minimize the influence of lobbyists (such as Miller).
University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato said Democrats will ask themselves one of two questions next Tuesday--which candidate they agree with, and which one stands a better chance against Allen.
The answers to those two questions aren't the same, Sabato said.
"As you look at the two candidates, Democrats are going to have to decide what's more important to them. Do they want someone who is a reliable Democrat with whom they agree on virtually every issue, or are they willing to make some compromises in order to be more competitive with George Allen in November?" Sabato said. "If they decide the former, Harris Miller is the nominee. If they decide the latter, Jim Webb is the nominee."
Sabato said Allen doesn't want to run against Webb.
"Allen fears Webb. And he ought to," Sabato said. "Webb has some conservative positions and a conservative background in some ways, but he is staunchly anti-Iraq war. He's got military and intellectual credentials that make George Allen wilt."
But, Sabato said, if Webb looks more formidable against Allen than Miller does, Miller still appeals to more Democrats.
"If you look at the Democratic party traditionally, it is very likely that Miller will be the nominee. This is what Democrats tend to do, they nominate liberals and they'll worry about November when it gets here, which means they'll lose," Sabato said. "If Democrats break their own mold and think differently this one time, then Webb will be the nominee and we're in for a fascinating general election."
Also, personal credentials are all very well and good, but a well-run, effective campaign counts for a lot, too, and Miller has a better one than Webb, Sabato said.
"Between the two, Miller has run the better-organized and
Webb himself says Miller has a solid strategy.
"Harris has run a very smart campaign. We'll have to see how it plays out," Webb told reporters after a news conference in Richmond last week where he was announcing an endorsement by Del. Don McEachin.
He said Miller had targeted people likely to vote in the primary--i.e. hard-core Democratic activists. Webb, too, would like those people to vote for him, but said he's also trying to show he is widening the base.
"We have had a tremendous amount of support from the bottom up," Webb said, even though Miller's fundraising has outstripped his own. "I think we're doing extremely well. We'll know in two weeks."
But widening the voter base works better in general elections--primaries generally have an abysmal voter turnout, mostly made up of the party's activists, although anyone can vote in a primary in Virginia.
Miller said in a phone interview that he's trying to reach voters who are likely to vote in the primary. But his campaign has been more against Allen than against Webb--much of Miller's stump rhetoric revolves around the problems in Washington and how Allen is part of those problems.
"I'm focusing my campaign on replacing George Allen. He's part of the mess in Washington. People know Washington's broken and it's time for a change," Miller said. "I have a real solution for real problems. George Allen has been a total partisan."
Miller believes his business background makes him the stronger candidate--he points to former Gov. Mark Warner, who went from businessman to elected official, as proof that that kind of Democrat wins in Virginia.
Webb believes his military background makes him a stronger candidate--the very theme of his campaign is "Born Fighting."
Fundraising reports last week show Miller with more cash than Webb, although a large chunk of Miller's money is his own.
"I'm partially self-financing because it's a startup business. Any startup business you have to self-finance," Miller said, noting that he also does have many contributions from other people.
Both men have boasted a slew of endorsements, ranging from local officials to national figures--including Webb's endorsement by John Kerry on Friday.
But neither campaign is expecting many voters to be paying attention, although more will in the next week.
Sabato said turnout will be "somewhere between low and lowest"--200,000 would be a high number.
"We're talking about a tiny fraction of voters," Sabato said. "It's typical. They never participate in primaries. Who thinks of voting in mid-June?"
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