Republican Sen. George Allen attacked his Democratic challenger's opposition to a flag-burning amendment, and James Webb retaliated by calling Allen a coward who sat out the Vietnam War "playing cowboy at a dude ranch in Nevada."
The statement by a senior adviser to Webb, a decorated veteran and former secretary of the Navy, went to extraordinary lengths to question Allen's fortitude, even repeatedly using the middle name the senator detests and never uses, Felix.
"While Jim Webb and others of George Felix Allen Jr.'s generation were fighting for our freedoms and for our symbols of freedom in Vietnam, George Felix Allen Jr. was playing cowboy at a dude ranch in Nevada," said Webb strategist Steve Jarding in the statement Tuesday.
Allen adviser Dick Wadhams called Jarding's comments pathetic and said they raise questions about Webb's fitness for office.
"They're saying we questioned (Webb's) patriotism, and that's a lie," Wadhams said. "We just raised a legitimate question about whether he supports a flag amendment or not. How is that questioning his patriotism?"
The rhetorical crossfire began after an Allen news release noted Webb's opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to ban desecration of the U.S. flag.
Allen voted in favor of the amendment Tuesday evening when the measure failed by one vote to get the two-thirds majority required.
The news release by Allen's campaign said Webb's opposition to the amendment shows he is beholden to liberal Sens. John Kerry, Ted Kennedy and Charles Schumer, who all voted against the amendment.
Within hours, Webb lashed back, calling Allen's news release "weak-kneed attacks by cowards."
"People who live in glass dude ranches should not question the patriotism of real soldiers who fought and bled for this country on a real battlefield," Jarding said.
Webb left the Republican party over Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. He has written novels informed by his Vietnam experience and a recent non-fiction book "Born Fighting."
Allen is a first-term senator mentioned as a possible 2008 presidential candidate. While he was a student at the University of Virginia, Allen worked summers at ranches in the Southwest.