Webb gets a little help from his friends

WASHINGTON, Va. – Jim Webb, the Republican turned Democrat challenging Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), bounded across former Rep. Ben Jones’s (D-Ga.) — better remembered as Cooter from the “Dukes of Hazzard” — front yard here to his RV where his one-armed driver and his radio operator in Vietnam, Mac McGarvey, was waiting to whisk him to a fundraiser in Warrenton, Va.

McGarvey is one of four men who served in the Vietnam War who make up Webb’s own “band of brothers” — similar to the sailors who served with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and in 2004, joined his presidential campaign.

McGarvey moved to Virginia from Nashville, Tenn., where he was running a honky-tonk named Tootsie’s. Webb’s classmate from Georgetown University’s law school, Nelson Jones, also served in the military and gave up his law practice in Texas to organize military veterans for the campaign. Two other men who served in combat with Webb, Tommy Lyons and Dale Wilson, who lost two legs and an arm, talk to Webb frequently.

Beyond the personal friendships, Webb’s campaign also has become an outlet for retired military veterans to voice their objections to the war in Iraq. Ret. Gens. Anthony Zinni and Wesley Clark, have endorsed Webb as did Col. Larry Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff. Webb also consults Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism czar in the Clinton administration, and Rand Beers, a national security analyst who served in multiple administrations. Both have criticized President Bush for the way he has conducted the war in Iraq.

Webb has cultivated a circle of friends — old and new, unknown and prominent — from the many parts of his professional life, which includes service in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War; time as a House committee lawyer and Pentagon official; experiences as a best-selling author and movie producer and now senate candidate.

Besides military men, Webb’s kitchen cabinet includes some celebrities and two maverick senators. Authors John Grisham and Stephen King held an event for Webb, a best-selling author himself, in Charlottesville, Va., in late September where the Dave Matthews Band played and all three men read chapters from their books. Walter Anderson, the CEO of Parade Magazine, is another “Friend of Jim’s.”

Webb said his political confidants include former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), both wounded Vietnam War veterans who worked on veterans’ issues before winning election to the Senate. Kerrey has held fundraisers for Webb and serves as an unofficial advisor.

Before Webb can start applying his previous first-hand political experience, he must overcome a major hurdle: convincing Virginians to vote for a Democrat for U.S. Senate, which they have not done since 1994. It’s not bad to have Cooter hosting a rally on his 50 acres of land where a river runs through it.

Jones revved up the audience by singing “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers and other country western ditties. He served fried chicken, hamburgers and hotdogs on picnic tables with red-and-white checked tablecloths to more than 150 Webb supporters. Former Sens. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.) and Bennett Johnston (D-La.), who now live near Jones, attended the event.

Jones joked how rural Americans abandoning the Democratic Party: “The average age of a Democrat around here is deceased,” he said as he proceeded to ridicule Sen. Allen, whose campaign has been faltering following accusations that he used racial slurs.

“Brother Allen says Jim Webb is runnin’ a smear campaign against him. [Allen] is runnin’ a smear campaign against himself,” Jones told the crowd. “This fella has self-destructed.”

Webb might be intimately familiar with the ways of Washington and Congress, but he is not a conventional politician. He does not wear the politician’s standard garb of blue Oxford dress shirts and khakis and he seems less practiced in the art of political subtlety. Webb dressed in a black wool polo shirt, olive pants, a taupe-colored sport jacket and desert combat boots, Webb points to Virginia state Del. Brian Moran (D), Rep. Jim Moran’s (D-Va.) brother.

“Everywhere I turn there’s Brian Moran,” Webb said alluding to Moran’s not-quite-acknowledged ambition to succeed Gov. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) in 2009.

Like other candidates, Webb must dedicate his weekends to rallies and fundraisers and logging mile after mile in his RV.

“I hope you all had a good spring and summer,” he said, noting that he logged 16,000 miles traveling across the state. “I’ve learned [during the campaign] that all hotels are not created equally.”

Webb also sees himself as a larger force in politics. He told supporters that, “A lot of people affiliated with Republicans on national security issues but were never comfortable with social justice and economic fairness [policies]. There are a lot of people looking for a home. I want to bring Reagan Democrats home.”