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Can Webb capitalize on Macaca-gate?

The Top Story by Chris Graham


The adage in the world of sports has it that it is sometimes better to be lucky than it is to be good.

Jim Webb could argue that the same might be said of life in the world of politics.

The Democratic Party Senate nominee entered the month of August trailing incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen by a double-digit margin – before seeing the race tighten to the three- to five-point range in the wake of the fallout from an incident at a rally in Southwest Virginia in which Allen referred to a Webb campaign volunteer of Indian-American descent by a nickname apparently derived from a word for monkey that is used as a slur for people from North Africa.

“Running a successful election is about a lot of things – it’s about having enough money, it’s about having a competent and professional campaign staff, it’s about having a candidate who can speak to voters. But it’s also about luck, in some ways,” said Quentin Kidd, a political-science professor at Christopher Newport University.

The Webb campaign, to its credit, Kidd told The Augusta Free Press, “was able to put itself in a position to be able to respond to the lucky break.”

That having been said, though, it is not going to be the case that Webb is going to be able to ride Macaca-gate to victory in November.

“The free publicity and free momentum that he’s had recently is not going to last. Allen has the money and the resources to sustain his ability to overcome this and regain momentum. So I don’t think this is all rosy news for Webb – and I don’t think it’s a death blow for Allen. It could be – it could be that Webb capitalizes on this in a productive way, and it could be that Allen continues to stumble and never quite recovers. But I don’t think those are foregone conclusions,” Kidd said.

The next step for Webb, according to Matt Smyth, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, is translating his new place in the polls into a new place in the campaign fund-raising war.

As of June 30, according to data from the Federal Election Commission, Allen had raised $10.1 million for his Senate campaign to Webb’s $1.1 million – and had $6.6 million cash on hand to Webb’s $424,000.

“This might be what national Democratic Party leaders have been waiting for in terms of committing their resources to this race,” Smyth told the AFP.

“There are a lot of Senate races around the country where Democrats are competitive – and because there’s not an unlimited amount of money, they’re going to focus it and try to spend it wisely, so to speak. So if you’ve got a race where a candidate is showing promise and can sustain that, then it’s possible that they’ll infuse that with some cash – and that in itself can keep things competitive,” Smyth said.

“Right now, it seems like Webb has a window of opportunity – he’s got something that puts the incumbent on the defensive, and if they can jump on it, then we might have a competitive race. But Allen is still the favorite, and still has a lot of the advantages,” Smyth said.

As University of Mary Washington political-science professor Stephen Farnsworth notes, one of the key advantages for Allen is his own ability to raise money in large sums.

“Allen is a proven fund-raiser. He’s going to have a lot of money. The challenge for Webb is, how is he going to be competitive with the millions and millions that Allen will be able to bring in? Because when you’re looking at the fund-raising disparities that exist right now, Allen has plenty of money. And if he needs more money, he can get more money,” Farnsworth told the AFP.

“Money in politics goes to the races that are seen as being the most competitive. And the Allen-Webb race, in neither party’s estimation, is not one of the five or six most competitive races in the country. We might rank it at the bottom of the top 10 – but unless it moves up in that ranking, this race is not going to generate the kind of money that Webb needs to be competitive. Because Democrats are going to target their money to those candidates in close races that they think are going to be successful,” Farnsworth said.

Webb campaign spokesperson Kristian Denny Todd said the campaign is seeing some positive movement in terms of its fund-raising efforts – “Our fund raising is going really well. We may not have as much money as George Allen has or will have, but Jim will have enough money to go head to head with him in the fall on TV. We know that – and we’ve always known that,” Denny Todd told the AFP.

More important than the money race, though, is defining Webb and his stance on the issues of the day vis-à-vis Allen, according to Todd.

“We always believed that the more Virginians heard about George Allen, the less they’d like him – and the more they heard about Jim Webb, the more they’d like him,” Denny Todd said.

“I don’t think Allen has been tested. He has run statewide twice – but he’s yet to be really tested. And he goes around saying that Virginia really knows him – but I don’t think people really do know him. So I think this is an opportunity for Virginians to get to know him – and that’s part of the process. The other part is getting voters to know more about Jim Webb. And again, as the polls show, the more they know about him, the more they like him,” Denny Todd said.

Albemarle County blogger and Democratic Party activist Waldo Jaquith thinks Webb is going to have to offer voters more in the way of specifics to be able to continue gaining in the polls.

“It seems pretty clear to me that the next thing that Webb needs to do is something positive – that is, not something that consists of attacking Allen, but something to demonstrate to the public that you’ve seen that Allen isn’t fit to lead, now let me show you by example that I am,” Jaquith told the AFP.

“I don’t know what that would be – there are any number of policy proposals that he could put forward or areas in his own background that he could choose to highlight or a positive commercial. But he will have to fill that void – because what we’ve seen is Allen falling in the polls, which has benefited Webb, but Webb himself hasn’t done anything to earn his rankings at the moment,” Jaquith said.

Kidd concurs with that point – and offered up one issue that Webb could play up to his benefit.

“The most effective way to capitalize on this is to then turn this discussion toward the criticism of Allen for the war and his support of the war,” Kidd said.

“If he doesn’t do that, or at least use this opportunity to raise some other substantive issue, he misses out on the opportunity to capitalize on the momentum,” Kidd said. “This is the opportunity to really turn the momentum into his favor over the long term – rather than enjoying the headlines but not gaining anything in the long term out of it.

“Bottom line – this comment isn’t going to help Webb win. If Webb is going to win, he has to take Allen on the policies and the issues,” Kidd said.


(Published 08-28-06)


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