Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb hasn’t been seen much since announcing late last year he was exploring a bid for president, but he told a ballroom full of firefighters Tuesday they may be seeing a lot more of him soon.
Webb delivered remarks at the International Association of Fire Fighters Conference just off Capitol Hill, one of eight prospective White House contenders to speak in person on the second day of the gathering. (Jeb Bush spoke in a recorded video.)
Wedged between Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, the published author’s subdued speaking style stood in contrast to two of the GOP’s more gifted orators. It was a reminder of the knock against Webb’s potential candidacy: He loves the policy work of politics far more than the theater of the campaign trail.
When asked by CQ Roll Call if he was prepared for the realities of the road to the White House, Webb reminisced about his first bid for elected office in 2006.
“If you look back on the decisional process we made back when I ran for Senate, I thought about it for a while, I talked to people, announced nine months to the day from the election, with no money and no campaign staff,” Webb said at a news conference following his speech. “I don’t want to be in that situation again, but the thought process is separate from actually doing it.”
Some of Cruz’s remarks were met with grumbles from the mostly male crowd of several hundred — including a crack about the absence of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner of the still empty field of candidates. Still, Cruz took his customary stance to the side of the lectern, used no notes and motioned with his hands constantly.
The audience couldn’t be faulted for thinking Webb had no hands at all. Donning a black suit, he stood stiffly behind the lectern, spoke haltingly at times and often looked down at his notes.
But Webb’s populist message pleased the union crowd. Shown on two large screens behind the stage was a photo Webb said came from the front page of The Washington Post in November 2006, the morning after he was declared the winner over then-Sen. George Allen. At a rally on the grounds of the Arlington County Courthouse, he held his famed campaign trail boots — first worn by his son in combat in Iraq — in his hand, flanked by his wife and Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, and backed by a group of IAFF members holding the union’s campaign signs for Webb.
“You helped me get there, we worked hard together after I got there, and I have to say honestly you’re the only group I know who has ever out-hustled Chuck Schumer into the center of a photograph,” Webb said. “I’m here to say, I may call on you again, so stay tuned.”
Webb spent more of his 22-minute speech on economic fairness — an issue likely to be central to his message in a presidential campaign. He criticized the hundreds of millions of dollars the heads of corporations can make and the tripling of the stock market over the past six years while middle and working class wages stagnated.
“This is not sour grapes, and it is not a cheap shot,” Webb said. “It is the reality of our current system, and it has got to stop.”
As Webb stood before reporters, Clinton was preparing to meet the press regarding the controversy surrounding her use of private email while secretary of State. It comes as polling continues to show Clinton’s potential Democratic rivals with relatively miniscule support.
The former first lady, New York senator and 2008 presidential contender was favored by 60 percent of respondents in the McClatchy-Marist national poll released Monday. Webb was at the back of the pack at 1 percent. And Clinton will have no trouble fundraising and has already begun building an organization with top-rated consultants and operatives.
Webb is using his exploration committee to decide if he can fund a viable campaign while supporting policies like a hike on capital gains tax rates. While Mudcat Saunders, a strategist on Webb’s 2006 campaign, is advising his longtime friend again and was on hand Tuesday, other Virginia Democrats who respect and are favorable toward the former senator are still waiting to see if this is really something he wants to do.
“The qualities that made him such a great senator, are the qualities that make it a challenge for him to run,” said Joe Abbey, a consultant at Purple Strategies and former campaign operative to Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. “He’s very passionate about the policy issues that he cares about, he’s really there to be the populist fighter and to fight for the causes. But I’ve always gotten the impression that he doesn’t like the sport that is politics.”
The IAFF endorsed Sen. Christopher J. Dodd for president in late August 2007, four months before he dropped out of the race following a poor performance in the Iowa caucuses. While it’s not looking to necessarily pick winners, IAFF President Harold Schaitberger told reporters Tuesday, the union will go through the process over the next few months in deciding which candidate deserves the support of its 300,000 members across the country and the IAFF’s political spending.