NEWS- Latest rival: Former Navy boss joins fray

James Webb has some explaining to do to Democratic Party voters in Virginia this spring. But if he can wade through that minefield as successfully as he did through a long military career– including a tour of duty in Vietnam and a stint as Ronald Reagan's secretary of the Navy– he just might end up giving United States Senator and presumed 2008 Republican Party presidential frontrunner George Allen a serious run for his money in November.

It actually may not be as hard as some think for Webb, who entered the race for the Democratic Party Senate nomination March 8, to come out on top in his party-primary battle with Harris Miller, a Northern Virginia businessman.

"It's curious that Webb has gotten near-universal adoration and support from the Netroots– from the on-line grassroots– given that those Democratic activists tend to be more aligned with Harris Miller's positions," says local blogger Waldo Jaquith. "I don't know what to make of it. I can't claim to understand it."

Democratic Party activist and blogger Lowell Feld is one of the leaders of the Webb Netroots revolution. Feld helped launch a draft-Webb effort last year after Webb told The San Diego Union-Tribune that he had been "thinking about" running against Allen in 2006.

"I think it's pretty much a no-brainer," says Feld. "The Democratic Party used to be a coalition of Northern liberals and Southern conservatives– and we lost that. I think here's a chance to start to win that back," Feld said.

"He sees the Republican Party drifting far, far, far to the right on social issues and a lot of other things– and he's not happy with it," Feld said.

Webb, perhaps demonstrating that he sees this as his trump card, is focusing his attention squarely on Allen– questioning the GOP stalwart's allegiance to the "larger machine that is operative today in the Republican Party" in a speech in Richmond last week.

The strategy would be a good one if it were the fall, and the November election was just around the corner. But even with the support of many in the Netroots, winning votes in a Democratic Party primary by playing up the Allen-isn't-Republican-enough card might prove to be a tough hand to play.

"The question that he has to answer to Democratic primary voters is that primary voters in either party tend to be the party stalwarts, the banner carriers of the party," says Quentin Kidd, a political-science professor at Christopher Newport University.

"Here's a guy who, until whenever he declared a few weeks ago, nobody knew was a Democrat," says Kidd. "In fact, he has a history of not only serving under a Republican president, but he's endorsed Allen before. His job is to explain to Democratic primary voters why he's a Democrat."

A Miller campaign spokesperson raised that issue in a comment to The Roanoke Times last week about Webb's entree into the party-nomination battle– "We welcome Jim Webb to the race, and we welcome him to the Democratic Party," spokesperson Taylor West told the paper.

University of Mary Washington political-science professor Stephen Farnsworth thinks Miller will do well to put the spotlight on his business background.

"His business experience and his connections to Mark Warner could put him in good stead with Democratic Party voters," says Farnsworth.

The Warner connection– evident in the makeup of the Miller campaign team, which is populated heavily with staffers from the Warner and Tim Kaine gubernatorial efforts of 2001 and 2005– is a key factor in a state in which Warner's approval ratings were in the 70-percent-plus range as he rode out the governor's office earlier this year.

But Webb can claim some significant Warner ties as well– in the form of campaign strategists Steve Jarding and Dave "Mudcat" Saunders. Jarding ran Warner's '01 gubernatorial campaign, and Saunders was one of the architects of the successful Warnerian effort to appeal to rural voters.

With the Warner factor likely muted– Warner did co-host a fund-raiser for Miller in early March, but he has not publicly endorsed either candidate– it's really anybody's guess as to how the primary campaign will play out over the next three months.

Unlike Harris Miller, James Webb got a seat on the acclaimed Colbert Report on Comedy Central March 9