Jim Webb's Toughest Mission

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COLUMBIA, S.C. - His body is still embedded with shrapnel from Vietnam and as a new senator he confronted George W. Bush in the White House over the Iraq War.

But last week James Webb embarked on what may be his toughest mission yet, touring early primary states for the first time as he seeks to build support to challenge the runaway favorite Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Webb, 69, a cantankerous former US Marine Corps officer, became a novelist and Hollywood screenwriter before serving as navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan. He then switched parties and was elected to the Senate in 2006 as a populist Democrat championing the working man.

Now, he is pitting himself against Clinton, who is viewed by his supporters as a creature of Wall Street beholden to big-money benefactors and managed by a coterie of campaign advisers who filter every word she utters.

Webb is careful not to criticize the former secretary of state by name but there is little doubt about the disdain he feels for everything she represents.

“This country is suffering from leadership fatigue,” he told The Sunday Times outside a Democratic party event in Columbia, South Carolina, a city that Union troops burnt to the ground in the American Civil War.

“People are looking for new ways to move forward with people they can trust. They really want to see a different approach.”

The Clintons, along with the Bushes, have been among those leaders. The recent furor over Clinton keeping a secret computer server and destroying 30,000 emails during her time as secretary of state reminded many voters of the bitter disputes of the 1990s and question marks about her honesty.

Webb said he had received “an enormous response” from “people who would like to see the Democratic party go back to the principled mission of taking care of the working people rather than a lot of the interest group politics”.

There are signs there may be an opportunity for Webb and other potential candidates such as Martin O’Malley, a former Maryland governor, and Joe Biden, the vice-president, to mount a viable challenge.

A Reuters-Ipsos poll found that support for Clinton among Democrats had dropped by 15 points since mid-February. Webb, awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for bravery in Vietnam, is in favor of gun rights and is skeptical about foreign interventions and has a rugged appeal that could attract working-class white voters who have deserted the Democrats.

When he was elected to the Senate, the thrice-married Webb — whose son Jimmy served as a marine in Ramadi at the height of the Iraq War — had a tense exchange with Bush at a White House reception. Responding to an inquiry about his son from the then president, Webb retorted: “I’d like to get them out of Iraq.”

He left the Senate last year, disgusted by the gridlock in Washington. Dick Harpootlian, a Democratic elder statesman in South Carolina, wants Webb to run.

“The inevitability mantle that Hillary Clinton wears so heavily, as it did in 2008, ends up being a magnet for opposition,” he said. “She’s Vladimir Putin compared to Jim Webb or Martin O’Malley. Her access is controlled. The message is controlled.”

Webb, by contrast, was a “more moderate, saleable candidate” who was low-key, listened and wasn’t “insulated” from the public. “He didn’t come with a cadre of attachés and aides, he didn’t fly in on a private plane. You can’t campaign for president from 30,000ft,” Harpootlian said.

Another senior Democrat in South Carolina who met Webb said: “This email thing is a goldmine for Republicans. There’s a sense of ‘here we go again with the Clintons’.

“They stonewall, dribble it out and then finally come clean. But there’s a problem here — it can be very debilitating if that’s your nominee in a general election.”

Democrats fear a coronation for Clinton could leave their party with a weak candidate while Republicans hold a full contest that could elect a battle-tested nominee from the two dozen currently contemplating a run.

“My hope is that Americans will just look at this great American hero,” said Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a legendary Southern Democrat advising Webb. “ Jim Webb is a patriot and has proved it time and time again.

“Is Hillary Clinton vulnerable? Well, she was invincible in 2008. I’m a hillbilly. I don’t have a command of the English language like you guys do in Britain. But I thought you could only be invincible one time.” 

Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission.

In conclusion...

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission. 

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