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What is Jim Webb doing?

Since declaring his presidential exploratory committee six weeks ago, the former senator and potential 2016 candidate has gone dark.
Sen. Jim Webb holds a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 1, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Sen. Jim Webb holds a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 1, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb last month became the first major candidate of either party to create a presidential exploratory committee, but since then, he’s remained quiet. And it is unclear if or when his next big move will come, even as he’s excited some Democrats as a possible alternative to Hillary Clinton.

The speculation began in the middle of the night on Nov. 19, when with no advance warning, a 14-minute video appeared on Webb’s website announcing the creation of his exploratory committee.

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His interest was no surprise -- Webb had been eyeing a bid for months and explained his interest at length during a September appearance at the National Press Club -- but the formal announcement caught many Democrats and political observers off guard. And it led some other Democrats considering a bid to move up their own timeline, especially if it signaled that Webb would get a head start campaigning in earnest ahead of 2016.

But instead, Webb has laid low. He’s steered clear of the press (outside of one media appearance in Richmond in early December), eschewed major fundraising, stayed out of the early presidential nominating states, made no splashy hiring announcements, and even refrained from holding formal meetings with advisors.

“He's a thinker,” explained David “Mudcat” Saunders, a longtime Virginia Democratic strategist who is advising Webb on his potential presidential bid. “Jim's been talking to a lot of people. He's just right now collecting information. That's really all that's been happening, is the collection of information ... We formed the exploratory committee, and that's where we are."

Some Democrats have raised questions about Webb’s willingness to do the hard work required for a presidential run. He resigned after one term in the Senate largely because he loathed campaigning so much. “It would probably help if he'd be willing to shake a couple of hands,” Virginia Democratic Rep. Jim Moran said of Webb’s 2006 campaign, according to The Washington Post. Another operative told the paper at the time that he found the campaign grind “offensive.”

Webb’s lack of visible campaigning since the formation of his exploratory campaign has worried some Democrats who would like to see him run. “It’s a fire in the belly question with him -- is he willing to spend the winter in Iowa shaking hands?” said a Democratic operative close to the White House who is sympathetic to Webb’s presidential ambitions, but was not authorized to speak to the press.

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After his trip to Iowa this summer, Webb was reportedly tired by the brief outing, according to another Democratic operative who saw him in the state.

Others have raised questions about his ability to raise the tens of millions necessary for a sustained run. "There is no interest among the people who give money in Jim Webb," said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who has been backing Clinton.

But Webb has created enough buzz to apparently worry some Clinton allies. Philippe Reines, Clinton’s close press advisor, recently pitched opposition research about Webb to talk radio hosts, according to U.S. News and World Report.

On Monday, Business Insider reported that Webb had paid his wife and daughter nearly $100,000 in political contributions through his political committees for website services that didn’t produce obvious results.

Webb spokesperson Ashleigh Owens fired back, telling msnbc that the story “misrepresents reasonable compensation for real and provable work done.” She said Webb’s daughter and wife were involved in many aspects of managing Webb’s website, especially this year as he reentered the political fray. “The payments were well within the law, were scrutinized regularly by outside legal counsel, and were much lower than usual amounts of compensation for such services,” Owens said.

Webb hasn’t said much for himself in the past month, but he’s been a part of the 2016 conversation thanks to some mostly favorable press coverage. Pundits of all political stripes have hailed Webb’s appearance as a breath of fresh air in a field long dominated by the aura of Clinton's inevitability.

Many progressives see Webb as an attractive counter to Clinton, especially on foreign policy. Michael Tracey, writing in The Week, said Webb represents a “better way forward for Democrats. The Nation called him “Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare.”

Others think Webb can appeal culturally to the kind of white working class and rural voters whom the party has alienated in recent years. A decorated Marine, Webb can tap into cultural populism that might attract voters turned off by the alleged coastal elitism of Clinton or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another progressive favorite. It’s the role former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer could have filled before he damaged himself by making an anti-gay gaffe.

And his idiosyncratic policy views make him hard to pin down. “Mr. Webb’s attacks on free trade and economic elites, coupled with a call for America to come home again, might well prove a potent combination in the early primaries, attracting anti-war progressives as well as conservative-minded Southern white men whom he believes the party can win back,” wrote National Interest editor Jacob Heilbrunn in The New York Times.

But some on the left think Webb is benefiting from a wishful and superficial reading of his record. As Justin Doolittle wrote in The Hill, once progressives dig deeper, they might find plenty not to like on Webb’s record. The former senator opposes affirmative action, describes himself as a “strong supporter” of the Second Amendment, has a controversial history with women, has expressed affinity for the “gallantry” of the Confederacy, said in 2007 that he “still strongly supports the Vietnam War,” voted to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, and “sucks on climate change,” according to the environmental website Grist.

He got less than 1% of the vote in Democracy for America's poll of its members. That progressive group is supporting Warren. But Webb's strength would not come from the Warren-set, it would have to come from an untapped, largely moderate and white base of the party that Barack Obama did not even attempt to mobilize in 2008.

Webb’s strength is his brand as a political maverick. But his independence means he will never achieve the progressive purism liberals are demanding of Clinton and presumably looking for in a challenger. At his speech in Richmond, he chastised the Democratic Party for being “a party of interest groups,” suggesting he’s not interested in what those groups have to say. 

And that’s the way Webb is making his decision about running for president as well -- on his own.

“It was Jim's decision and Jim's decision entirely,” along with only his wife, Saunders said. “If he decides that he wants to be president of the United States, I think he wins.”

“If he does run, it will be one of the most interesting democratic nominating processes we've ever seen,” Saunders added.