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A great race in Virginia

| Sunday, April 30, 2006

WASHINGTON

As usual, Jim Webb is spoiling for a fight. As usual, he has found one. He is seeking the Democrats' senatorial nomination in Virginia against the incumbent, George Allen, a presidential aspirant.

Webb, a varsity boxer at Annapolis, was wounded twice as a Marine

officer in Vietnam where he earned the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. His six novels include the best written about Vietnam, "Fields of Fire.''

In 1988 he resigned -- more feistiness -- as President Reagan's secretary of the Navy to protest a reduction of the Navy's force structure. Now he has picked a fight with a fighter.

Allen, a former governor running statewide for the third time, is a terrific political talent. Even if Webb wins the Democrats' primary June 13, Allen will be heavily favored. But Virginia will have a contest of heavyweights and Allen will be a better presidential candidate for having gone 12 rounds with Webb.

Webb, who says he was "pretty much'' a Democrat until President Carter pardoned the draft evaders,'' endorsed Allen over Democrat Sen.

Chuck Robb in 2000, after supporting Robb -- another Marine veteran of Vietnam -- in 1994. In 1992, Webb supported the presidential campaign of

another Vietnam veteran, Nebraska Democrat Sen. Bob Kerrey, who now is national finance chairman of Webb's campaign. Webb says, "I wouldn't shake John Kerry's hand for 20 years'' because of Kerry's anti-Vietnam activities but "I voted for him'' in 2004.

"It was Iraq,'' Webb says, "that convinced me the Republican Party has gone crazy.'' He says: "I warned them early, they went in precipitously. We need to get out carefully, we do not need to be an occupying force.'' Carefully, but within two years.

Long convinced that invading Iraq would "empower Iran, the long-term

threat,'' Webb thinks the administration's neoconservative nation-builders "are so far to the left they seem to be on the right.'' His challenge will be to harvest financial support, much of it from outside of Virginia, from antiwar liberals, without forfeiting his appeal to Virginia's moderate Democrats and many military families. He is being endorsed by some of the retired generals now denouncing Don Rumsfeld. And he will attract attention if he continues to charge that the Bush administration is "deliberately miscounting the casualties in Iraq,'' minimizing them by "counting only those evacuated out of theater.''

Over the years Webb has made impolitic pronouncements opposing women in combat and warning that some affirmative action had become "state-sponsored racism.'' Today, Webb endorses affirmative action but not for mere "diversity'' reasons. He says that as secretary of the Navy he tripled the number of women in "operational billets'' and that he has been endorsed by the only woman to make it through the Special Operations course.

He campaigns in combat boots given to him by his son, who was a year from graduating from Penn State but now is a Marine lance corporal. He is due in Iraq in September.

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