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Former Va. senator, Vietnam vet considering presidential bid

WASHINGTON — Former Senator James Webb, a Virginia Democrat who was elected to the Senate in 2006 on the strength of his record as a combat veteran who opposed the Iraq war, said Monday in an interview on a Washington, D.C., radio station that he is thinking about running for president.

Appearing on WAMU's "Diane Rehm Show" to discuss his new memoir, Webb, a prolific author, Vietnam veteran and former secretary of the Navy, said he is concerned about the direction of U.S. foreign policy and is looking for a way to reengage in the national debate.

"My wife and I are just thinking about what to do next. I care a lot about where the country is, and we'll be sorting that out," he told host Susan Page when asked if he was considering a 2016 run.

Noting that he did not decide to challenge then-incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen, Va., in 2006 until nine months before the November election, he added: "It takes me a while to decide things. I'm not going to say one way or the other."

He said he was concerned that on foreign policy, the nation is now "bouncing from issue to issue without a clear articulation of what the national security interest of the United States actually is." At the same time, he said, he is worried by the growing gap between the rich and poor, which he said could be addressed through better leadership in Washington.

Webb's comments took the political establishment in Virginia and beyond by surprise.

Since declining to run for reelection to the Senate in 2012 after serving only a single term in office, Webb has largely disappeared from the political scene.

He spent little time in office or since leaving it nurturing the kind of political connections that would be needed to run for president, particularly to challenge the kind of fundraising and organizing juggernaut that would be available to former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.

And Webb never relished the superficiality of the campaign trail, which he might find even more pronounced at the presidential level than in the Senate.

Still, Webb, 68, is considered a maverick.

He served in the administration of President Ronald Reagan before running for the Senate as a Democrat. A highly decorated former Marine, he exchanged sharp words about the Iraq war at the White House with President George W. Bush shortly after his election to the Senate.

People close to him said he would not have opened the door to a possible run if he were not thinking about it seriously.

"I don't think Jim Webb says anything just to get attention. He's not that kind of person," said Jessica Vander Berg, a former senior adviser to Webb who served as his campaign manager in 2006. "I think he is trying to figure out how to get his view points out."

She said Webb could help focus the race on issues of economic populism and fairness, a frequent topic of his writings and speeches since before his election to the Senate. He has pushed Democrats to reconnect with white working class communities that have grown culturally suspicious of the party.

His latest book, "I Heard My Country Calling," recounts his childhood, including his father's roots in Appalachia and his mother's background growing up in poverty in Arkansas.

"He can go to places like Kentucky, Arkansas, places where Democrats need help — he appeals to people there because of his background," Vander Berg said. "He's a huge asset to the Democratic Party."

In the Senate, he focused on prison reform and strengthening U.S. ties with Asia. He championed an update to the GI Bill, to help veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan with educational benefits.

Steve Jarding, a political consultant who advised his 2006 effort, said Webb could make an intriguing alternative to Clinton.

"There's a rather strong itch out there for someone who will tell it like it is, putting politics aside — almost detesting the politics," he said. "Hillary Clinton is as qualified as anyone who's run who is not an incumbent . . . and yet, there will always be people looking for an alternative."

Webb has spent less time preparing for a race than other Democrats who have acknowledged thinking about running, including Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer.

But Webb did appear at a veterans gala in the key early primary state of New Hampshire on Saturday.

One Virginia Democrat said he finds it hard to believe that Webb has the stomach for a campaign.

"When I think about presidential politics and the complete pandering, debasing roadshow that's required, I can make many of the issues Webb is interested in fit and work," he said, but added: "I'm not sure I can make the personality fit."
 

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