SPRINGFIELD, Va. -- Here at the Greenspring retirement community on the Wednesday before the Virginia primary to choose a Democratic nominee to oppose incumbent U.S. senator and potential presidential candidate George Allen, World War II veteran Gene Ogden, 89, asked: “What’s a New Deal Democrat like me supposed to do? Do I vote for a professional lobbyist or somebody who voted for George Allen and George Bush?”

Harris Miller, 54, the former Fairfax County Democratic chairman and party supporter, who represents the technology industry in Washington, is the “professional lobbyist.” The Allen-Bush-voting party apostate is the man who could be the Democrats’ biggest wildcard of 2006 and/or George Allen’s worst nightmare, the secretary of the navy in the Reagan administration, Jim Webb, 60.

The outcome of this primary in Virginia could indicate whether in statewide elections for federal office in the South and West, Democrats accept that successful politics must be a matter of addition, not subtraction.

For Democrats, the last 40 years have been nearly all subtraction. In 1964, Webb’s first year at the U.S. Naval Academy, he and 52 percent of American voters identified as Democrats. Just 25 percent of the electorate self-identified as Republicans.

During the Ronald Reagan years, when Republicans won converts and Democrats lost members, including Webb (largely on issue of national security), the GOP nearly achieved parity -- where, for the last two decades, it has remained, with roughly a little over one-third of voters calling themselves Democrats, slightly less than a third calling themselves Republicans and the remaining third, presumably, being too busy watching “American Idol.”

In two-party America, party members are either “native-born” or “naturalized.” That is, were you by birth and inheritance a Democrat, or a Republican, or did you convert to the other party? In recent history, the GOP has conducted most of the political “naturalization” ceremonies, welcoming the newcomers by often honoring them with nominations to high office.

What do past and present U.S. Sens. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and the late Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and former President Reagan have in common? All were active (sometimes, even elected) Democrats who switched to the GOP, where they were enthusiastically welcomed.

Will Democrats in 2006 put out the welcome mat for Jim Webb, who backed fellow Vietnam veteran, and then-senator, Democrat Bob Kerrey for president in 1992, and who did back Virginia Democrat Sen. Chuck Robb against his fellow Annapolis graduate Republican Oliver North in 1994 and John Kerry against George W. Bush in 2004? Webb is not so much a “naturalized” as he is a “re-enlisting” Democrat.

Webb’s politics are proudly Jacksonian -- Andrew, not Jesse. In his most recent book, “Born Fighting: How the Scots Irish Shaped America,” he quotes historian Vernon Louis Parrington on Old Hickory: “He was our first great popular leader, our first man of the people. ... He was one of our few presidents whose heart and sympathy were with the plain people, and who clung to the simple faith that government must deal as justly with the poor as with the rich.”

That defines Jim Webb’s own economic philosophy (“American workers are losing jobs because of unfair trade practices by foreign governments”), which not surprisingly has cost him the support of the think tank-syndicated-globalist set. What the comfortable national press corps needs in order to grasp the fury and sense of abandonment felt by Americans whose jobs are exported to “trading partners” with neither labor nor environmental standards is just one major publication hiring a Washington bureau chief at $50 a week from Tijuana.

But the big issue of 2006 remains Iraq. Here is what Jim Webb, the Marine combat veteran of Vietnam who earned two Purple Hearts, the Silver Star and the Navy Cross, wrote in The Washington Post on Sept. 4, 2002, in opposing a U.S. invasion:

“Those who are pushing for a unilateral war in Iraq know full well that there is no exit strategy if we invade and stay. ... In Japan, American occupation forces quickly became 50,000 friends. In Iraq, they would quickly become 50,000 terrorist targets.”

At a breakfast in a Herndon diner, even Fairfax county Democrat Shirley Ingebritsen, after listening to Webb, made her choice. Alluding to the country-wear favored by George Allen, she welcomed the former Marine back into the party fold with this endorsement: “I’ll take the combat boots over the cowboy boots anytime.”

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