In the movie "Rules of Engagement," written by James Webb, a wounded Vietnam veteran-turned-lawyer beats seemingly hopeless odds to win a case defending a comrade in arms.
A real-life Hollywood ending seemed unlikely until recently for Webb, who is campaigning to unseat Virginia Sen. George Allen, a formidable Republican opponent with presidential ambitions in 2008.
Now, however, a forceful anti-Iraq-war message resonating with voters nationwide before the November congressional elections and a distinctly unpresidential gaffe by his rival have helped Webb wipe out a double-digit polling deficit.
Democrats suddenly scent blood and a chance for Webb to capture a big trophy as they seek to pick up the six seats needed to take control of the Senate from the Republicans.
Webb, an acclaimed novelist, decorated Vietnam War veteran and Navy secretary during conservative hero Ronald Reagan’s presidency, is proving tough for Republicans to label as another Democrat soft on national security.
Webb’s slogan, "Born Fighting", emphasizes a family history of military service — his 24-year-old son just shipped out to Iraq with the Marines — and he campaigns in combat boots alongside a comrade who lost an arm in Vietnam.
But he thinks the Iraq war is a mistake that has left U.S. foreign policy in disarray.
"I think they (Republicans) have lost the moral high ground because of what’s happened over the last six years," Webb said in an interview at his campaign headquarters.
"In Iraq, we are stirring the pot, not solving the problem."
SOLDIER VS COWBOY
Webb’s run is a test of whether the anti-war message that Democrats are increasingly confident pushing can convince a traditionally conservative state where Republican warnings against "cutting and running" in Iraq still carry clout.
The race only became competitive when Allen slipped up by using a racially charged term to address a member of Webb’s campaign team who was filming the Republican on the stump.
"It’s not a state like Connecticut where the anti-war message is stronger because there’s more Democrats, more left-leaning independents that agree with that message," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor at the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.
Former vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman lost a Democratic primary in Connecticut last month to an anti-war rival who accused him of cozying up to President George W. Bush over the war, but polls now have Lieberman ahead as an independent in the relatively liberal state.
Webb, a youthful-looking 60-year-old whose ruddy complexion and red hair betray his Scots-Irish ancestry, wants to commit to withdrawing from Iraq but pledges to strike firmly at U.S. enemies there and elsewhere in the world.
"When I hear people allege you cannot be against the war in Iraq and for the war against international terrorism, I respectfully disagree," he said.
Analysts see Webb being helped by the heavy military presence at bases throughout Virginia and by the growing population in wealthy, more ethnically mixed northern Virginia, where people lean Democrat.
Still, as in most U.S. Congress races, the smart money is on the incumbent, who in this case has added celebrity appeal as the son of Hall of Fame football coach George Allen and who was himself a star college quarterback in California.
Allen, who campaigns in cowboy boots and with a simple, sunny style that reminds many of Reagan, has a big funding advantage and wide name recognition in the state where he was once governor.
With polls now showing a tight race, campaigning is getting personal. Allen’s camp set up a news conference this week by five female Naval Academy graduates who said a 1979 article Webb wrote on women’s unsuitability for combat had led to harassment against women at the academy.
© Reuters 2006