Game On

11.21.14 1:35 AM ET

Hillary Gets a Challenger and He’s a Marine

Jim Webb is officially exploring a 2016 run. Why the former senator—and former Republican—might be able to reach the Democratic voters that Clinton can’t.

The typical campaign kickoff video has soft lighting, shots of the candidate with family or, shaking hands with beaming youngsters, grizzled farmers, and grateful factory workers while a voice-over runs down platitudes about saving the nation from the imminent peril that another election gone wrong will bring.

Jim Webb’s announcement that he’s forming an exploratory committee for a possible 2016 presidential run had all the slick production of the instructional video shown before jury duty.

There was Webb, a one-term senator from Virginia, wearing a charcoal gray suit and a blue button shirt, staring directly into the single camera, speaking for 14 minutes. He laid out his biography—Vietnam vet, secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, antiwar Democrat in the U.S. Senate—his record as a lawmaker, which included criminal-justice reform and a new GI Bill, and the rationale for his campaign: “A strong majority of Americans agree that we are at a serious crossroads. In my view the solutions are not simply political, but those of leadership.” (The text, spread out over pages, was helpfully posted directly below the video.)

It has all the trappings of a campaign as vanity project, the type of presidential exploration designed not to excite convention delegates but to boost a candidate’s name ID before cable-TV bookers. Webb, after all, would come into a Democratic primary with considerable baggage—never mind that he would likely be squaring off against Hillary Clinton, the most overwhelming favorite in an open Democratic primary in history. There is the fact that Webb used to be a Republican, a point he proudly points to in the video when he mentions his service in the Reagan administration. Or the fact that Webb, who decided not to run again after only one term in elective office, doesn’t seem to have the stomach for the degradations of politics. And the fact that Webb’s base of support lies among working-class whites, who are a diminishing constituency in a party made up more and more of liberals, minorities, and the professional classes. (“What a naïve and stupid thing to think that Democratic primary voters want,” wrote The Daily Kos in response to Webb’s kickoff video, calling Webb a hopeless crank and comic relief in the mold of Herman Cain.)

But veterans of his campaign for Senate and people close to him insist that Webb is taking a serious look. Webb’s video announcement last night makes him the first Democrat to officially declare his interest, and as the party waits for the near-inevitable Clinton kickoff, some Webb supporters say that is not as inevitable as many pundits believe. And should Clinton jump in, some in Webb world say they think she is the wrong candidate at a time when the nation is disgusted with politics as usual and when the declining prospects of the middle class is the most important issue facing the nation.

“Jim is not a trial-balloon guy. A lot of people send trial balloons up because they want to see if they have a chance, or if people like them,” said Steve Jarding, a strategist on Webb’s 2006 run. “That’s not Jim. He says ‘I have a message and I am going to move that message.’ He challenges the Democratic Party to say what it stands for.”

Jarding acknowledged that Webb faces long odds—“At this point, you wouldn’t bet on him”—but noted that his win in what was thought to be deeply Republican Virginia in 2006, against a popular incumbent, was unlikely as well.

And he conceded that Webb didn’t have much of a taste for politics, but suggested that the former senator could be a stand-in for Americans who don’t have much of a taste for the process either right now.

“Apparently 90 percent of Americans agree with him. They don’t like politics much these days either. Maybe Americans are willing to look at someone who does something different from the calculated. He gives those Americans a voice who say, ‘You know what, they are all crooks and bastards up there on Capitol Hill and I don’t want to have anything to do with them.’ I mean, look at that video! With all due respect, it was like something out of the 1970s. It wasn’t what you would see from an insider politician.”

On Friday, some of Hillary Clinton’s biggest supporters, who have banded together under the Ready for Hillary super PAC to raise millions of dollars and garner millions of email addresses, will gather in Midtown Manhattan to bask in their successes in preparing the groundwork for her run. Webb has kept a low profile since leaving the Senate, and will be running for president “the old-fashioned way,” in the words of one aide—waiting to announce before trying to gather support.

And Clinton, his aides insist, is a non-factor.

“It ain’t about Hillary,” said Mudcat Saunders, a longtime Virginia strategist who worked on Webb’s Senate campaign. “It’s about bring the American dream to the forefront once again for working people and small business. The working people and small business—they haven’t had any representation in years. And they know it.

“Americans want to do something about this coin-operated government.”

The early line on Webb had been that he would be challenging Clinton from the right. It is a reasonable assumption, considering his roots in the Republican Party, in the Marines, and his proud Scots-Irish roots. But Webb’s aides insist it isn’t true. He is to the left of Hillary on foreign intervention, and is more populist on economic matters as well, talking about not just curbing the power of big banks but about an inequality agenda that goes beyond raising taxes and the minimum wage in order to help lower middle-class families gain more of a foothold. They see him bringing working-class whites and Southerners into the fold in a way that no other Democrat could.

“He talks about taking the Democratic Party back to its populist roots,” said Jessica Vandenberg, a longtime political operative who just moved back to her native Iowa and is helping lay the groundwork for the Webb campaign in that first-in-the-nation caucus state. “There is a debate about the direction of the Democratic Party, and it is good to have that debate.”