VIENNA,Va. – Democrat Jim Webb claimed victory in the Virginia Senate race early Wednesday,after a long evening when incumbent Republican George Allen appeared to be in the lead.
Allen,meanwhile,neither claimed victory nor admitted defeat when he addressed supporters in Richmond about 12:30 a.m.
After predicting victory in an 11 p.m. speech,Webb returned to cheering supporters two hours later and claimed it: “The votes are in and we won. …I look forward to representing all of you to the best of my ability.”
Webb's brother led a procession into the victory party playing the U.S. Marine Hymn on the bagpipes,followed by Webb,a former Marine who fought in Vietnam,his wife and children.
Supporters who had been cheering “we want Webb” began chanting “we've got Webb.”
But the race could be headed for a recount. Webb was leading by about 2,000 votes out of nearly 2.3 million counted. Absentee ballots remain to be counted. Virginia law provides for an automatic recount when candidates are separated by less than one-half a percentage point.
In his 11 p.m. speech,Webb said,”I've been in a lot of fights in my life. This is nothing new. … At some point very soon,we're going to be on top.”
With former Democratic governor Mark Warner at his side,Webb said results from precincts he expected to help his race hadn't been counted yet and that he expected to do well among voters who cast absentee ballots.
Allen did not speak to supporters in Richmond until 90 minutes later. With his wife,children and other relatives on the platform,he recalled winning his first election by 18 votes and said,”The world is controlled by those who show up.”
Urging supporters to be “eagles and hawks” as the vote counting continues Wednesday,Allen told supporters to “stay strong for freedom and representative democracy.”
A dead heat was not what experts predicted after Webb won a contested primary. It's a surprise ending to a race that most experts predicted Allen would win easily.
Webb's approval ratings surged ahead of Allen's after the first-term senator was caught on camera using an alleged racial slur and then fumbled his response to the revelation that his mother had long hidden that she is Jewish.
Allen's campaign also wins the title of “worst-run campaign in the country,” said political scientist Mark Rozell of George Mason University in Fairfax,Va.
“This was a candidate who was not supposed to even have a competitive race this election cycle,” Rozell said. “Through a sequence of campaign missteps,and poor-handling of negative reactions,George Allen ended up with a competitive race.”
As a result,Allen lost any chance of serious consideration for a presidential run in 2008,Rozell said.
Webb's credentials – a former Republican and Reagan administration Navy secretary – led the Democratic party to believe he could challenge Allen,Rozell said.
“I think on paper,the Democrats thought he was a good candidate,” he said. “But as it turns out,he was not a terribly good campaigner.”
In the end,Rozell said the race captured a large audience outside of Virginia because it made “a good story.”
“George Allen was supposed to be a top contender for the presidency,but he was unhinged by a number of campaign gaffes,” he said,”which captured the attention of the late-night comics and all kinds of comedic routines. It suddenly became a race with the U.S. Senate in the balance.”
Allen called a Webb volunteer cameraman of Indian descent “macaca,” the name of a genus of monkey and considered an ethnic smear in some French-speaking cultures.
At Webb's election-night party in mostly Democratic Northern Virginia just outside of Washington,Leslie L. Byrne,a former state delegate and U.S. House member,said,”Virginia has been turning from red to purple.”
With a Webb victory,Byrne said,”It means they're going to get one heck of a senator. He's got great ideas on economic justice and great ideas on how to deal with Iraq.”
With a victory for Allen,an ally of President Bush,Byrne said,”I guess it means they rubber stamped the rubber stamp.”
State Delegate David W. Marsden,D-Burke,said the close race was something of a surprise,calling Allen,a former governor and son of the popular football coach,”one of the most popular politicians in the state.”
He added that Webb's campaign started slowly: “I think clearly,he had a learning curve. … It's a lot harder than people think.”
Webb was also on the defensive over articles he wrote years ago calling women unfit for military service,and more recently,for sex scenes in his popular novels that grew out of his military service in Vietnam.
Allen's campaign issued a press release last week with excerpts of sex scenes from Webb's novels in what Rozell called an appeal to Allen's conservative base. Virginia voters also approved by a wide margin an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage.
“That was a calculated move by the Allen campaign,” Rozell said. “The Allen campaign was trying to give them a reason to get excited about something.”
Brian Duggan and Caroline E. Ruse also contributed to this report.