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Webb's Audition: Blasts McCain, Assesses Obama's Appalachia Problem

Webb

First Posted: 06/13/08 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 01:35 PM ET

Jim Webb, one of Congress' fastest rising Democrats and a Senator believed to occupy a spot on Barack Obama's vice presidential short list, is slated to throw his support behind the Illinois Democrat on Thursday, introducing Obama at a rally in Bristol, Virginia.

And while the event is designed to help Obama appeal to a portion of the country -- Appalachia and, more specifically, Virginia -- that could prove crucial in the general election, in an interview Wednesday with The Huffington Post, Webb showed off the political attributes he brings to the national campaign table.

On several key domestic and foreign policy issues, the Virginia Democrat offered persuasive defenses of Obama, in the process taking swipes at his presumed Republican counterpart.

"John McCain's comment about Barack not having sat down recently with General Petreaus means nothing," Webb said. "If you know who to listen to, if you know how to make judgments, if you know how evaluate information, you can do that. I don't think Franklin Roosevelt was ever at the front in France during WWII in order to help end the war."

On the other major foreign policy debate of the day -- whether or not a president should talk to hostile foreign leaders -- Webb again offered up a historical defense.

"Under the right circumstances, you have to [talk to your enemies]," he said. "My model for Iran is China in 1971. China was a nuclear power, it was a rogue state, it had American war on its border with Vietnam, it was spouting the same kind of hostile rhetoric. We took none of our military options off the table, we abandoned none of our alliances, but we reached out in a aggressive way diplomatically to bring China into the world community."

Webb has stayed religiously neutral throughout the Democratic primary, but is seen as a natural complement to an Obama presidency. Beyond reaching a set of voters with whom the presumptive Democratic nominee has had difficulties (working class whites), the Virginia Democrat brings with him military and foreign policy experience, and the ability to say he was against the Iraq war (as well as the first Persian Gulf War) before it was launched.

"You don't want to be an occupying power in that part of the world," he said. "It flames the tensions."

There are, of course, some red flags. The Senator has been a critic of the Democratic Party in the past, having previously served in the Reagan administration but never in an overtly political capacity. Moreover, his appeal to female voters is complicated by past remarks he made questioning the promotion of females at the U.S. Naval Academy and referring to the investigation into the Navy's "Tailhook" sexual harassment scandal as a "witch hunt" -- statements for which he has apologized.

But Webb has also shown that he can win a race with these albatrosses hanging around his neck. And when asked how he responded to the issues being re-raised in a vice-presidential context, and what kind of advice he could offer Obama for the inevitable character attacks, he brushed the topic away.

"Barack Obama has a year and a half now of constant exposure to this sort of mentality," he said. "Scott McLellan talked about the kind of campaign culture. It is a nasty world. The rest of it is just stuff. The Karl Rove mentality is to try and attack you at your greatest strength and then try to show that you are not like the people voting for you. Those are the two major things that they do. And they tried five or six different things in my campaign. And I just had to write it off."

Perhaps the most complicated argument for choosing (or not choosing) Webb as a VP is his bluntness. Several weeks ago, as he was promoting his new book "A Time To Fight" the Senator raised eyebrows over his diagnosis of Obama's problems in Appalachia. Instead of offering the usual political platitudes, he spoke candidly about how the issue was not one of entrenched racism, but rather a backlash to the belief that affirmative action programs had been expanded to every disadvantaged group except low-income whites.

"It is pretty obvious that there are a lot of people, a preponderance of people, who were comfortable with the notion of affirmative action for African Americans," Webb elaborated. "Then affirmative action kind of grew into a diversity program for basically all ethnic minorities. I think that's when you started seeing a reaction among people who were less advantaged among white voters..."

Here too, however, the Senator had a plan. "The Republicans know how to appeal to this cultural group, the Democrats don't even know they exist," he said, referencing an Wall Street Journal op-ed he penned in 2004. "But if you can get the rural whites in this country at the same table as African Americans, it would be good for American politics. I think Barack Obama has the potential to do this."

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