The Invited

The Dems’ Most Awkward Party Crasher

Ex-Senator Jim Webb may have been uninvited to a Democratic house party in Iowa earlier this month, but he was very well received.

04.21.15 9:15 AM ET

Hillary or Elizabeth?

That was the question that Walt Pregler, the chairman of the Dubuque County Democratic Party of Iowa wanted to ask of roughly 60 of his fellow county chairs and committed Democratic activists at a meeting earlier this month of the First District Central Committee, which represents the most Democratic portion of this first-in-the-nation caucus state.

The vote wasn’t binding, since party leaders don’t typically endorse, but Pregler wanted to get an informal sense of where his colleagues stood as Hillary Clinton prepared to launch her campaign and organizers from an effort to draft Elizabeth Warren into the race continued to work the state.

But then, unexpectedly, Jim Webb showed up.

After a barn-burner of a speech that touched upon the strains the middle class is under, criminal justice reform and the need to get money out of politics, and that, according to four attendees, won the former Virginia senator two standing ovations, the Warren/Clinton straw poll vote was delayed until the next meeting.

“I just didn’t feel right after that asking everyone, ‘Well, how do you feel about Hillary?’” Pregler said.

And so it has been for Webb.

As Clinton tries to fend off a universe of political reporters and even Martin O’Malley shows a new, slightly profane, feistiness, Webb continues to plod along in the early primary states, hoping for an opening in the Democratic field.

“We need to get out in front of more people. When Jim Webb shakes your hand and looks you in the eye, you see a patriot and you see a leader,” said Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Webb political adviser who helped guide John Edwards’s 2008 campaign.

Compared with someone like O’Malley, who seemingly has shaken the hand of every Democrat in Iowa and New Hampshire at this point, Webb is still slow-walking his presidential rollout. He has only been to Iowa once, although he has another trip planned for next week, and according to Saunders, already has 500 caucus-goers committed to him. (Webb has also traveled once to South Carolina, and has a New Hampshire swing planned for next month.)

“He is serious and authentic and that goes a long way in Iowa,” said Jeff Danielson, a state senator who shepherded Webb to the First District meeting but who says he has not yet committed to a candidate. “These really are the gatekeepers of the local party apparatus, and this isn’t their first rodeo. They have seen a lot of candidates and authenticity is very important. Mr. Webb is a no-drama type of guy. I think that will fit in very well with the current mood of caucus-goers.”

Current polls do not do much to buoy Webb’s confidence. Clinton has a more than 40-point lead in the state, and her two closest challengers, Warren and Vice President Joe Biden, are not likely to run. Webb often finds himself within the poll’s margin of error (meaning his real support could be literally nothing) and trailing Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont.

Webb is counting on most of his fundraising coming from online donations, and writes handwritten thank-you notes to the people he meets on the trail.

Saunders said, “You never hear the name Mrs. Clinton from us,” but it is hard not to hear an oblique attack on the overwhelming Democratic front-runner.

“Jim is more of a workhorse than a show horse,” said Craig Crawford, a one-time political journalist who signed on as Webb’s communications director this year. Current polls, he added, “are all about name recognition.” And if Webb lags in fundraising, well, “You don’t have to have $2.5 billion to win Iowa,” Crawford said, quoting a figure that some have named for the Clinton campaign war chest. “We wouldn’t know what to do with that if we had it.”

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As for Clinton’s hopes, “I don’t think you can be invincible twice. How does that happen?”

Added Saunders, “People talk about all this stuff—duty, honor, and country. Jim Webb really is it. We just have to see if it is feasible to defeat all of this special interest money.”

Mimicking Republican attacks on Clinton, Saunders said, “I think this is going to be the trust election. Who do you trust? I don’t care if it is a Democrat or a Republican. Voters hear these guys saying the same thing year after year and nothing happens. Voters might not agree with Jim Webb but they know where he stands, and they know what he is going to do if he gets elected.”

The Webb campaign will take off, he said, “Because people want leadership they can trust.”

Democrats say that Webb appeals to a number of groups that have been moving away from the party fold—veterans (he is the only candidate in either party with combat experience) and the white working class. And at the very least, he will provide some insurance in case you know who falters, and a new voice in what has been a remarkably uncrowded Democratic primary.

“We need everybody out there. I am not OK with just having one candidate on our side,” said Danielson, the state lawmaker. “My biggest concern is the potential of a Bush versus Clinton race, and people are just not that excited about it because of the legacies of those two families in American politics. We are not are a patrician society, and people like to have a shot at things, even in politics. The possibility of a baton handoff between two families is not a good reflection on us.”