RICHMOND, Va. – One Democrat calls his rival the "anti-Christ of outsourcing" U.S. jobs and argues that he's trying to buy a win in the Virginia primary.
The other fires back, labeling his opponent a sexist who is hostile to affirmative action and is, at heart, a Republican.
Accusations fly freely in the Democratic primary between decorated Vietnam veteran and Reagan-era Navy secretary Jim Webb and former Internet industry lobbyist Harris Miller. The winner Tuesday will face first-term Sen. George Allen, a potential 2008 presidential candidate.
Virginia is unaccustomed to primaries, especially bitter ones; the last Democratic Senate primary was in 1994. The primaries are open to any voter because Virginians do not register by party.
In a turnout projected to be less than 5 percent of Virginia's 4.5 million registered voters, it is impossible to accurately project the outcome, advisers to both candidates say, particularly with two campaigns as polarized as Webb and Miller.
The latest sparring occurred in a debate Friday.
The two clashed over a Webb campaign flier that showed Miller, who is Jewish, with a hooked nose and cash spilling from his pockets as he orders an underling to export U.S. jobs overseas. The text in the comic-book style pamphlet refers to Miller, the former president of the Information Technology Association of America, as the "anti-Christ of outsourcing" for sending high-tech jobs overseas.
"One of the things I hoped we would keep out of this campaign because it has nothing to do with the campaign is my religion and my background," said Miller, who called the flier "despicable."
Webb said the intent was not to disparage Miller's religion or heritage and apologized if that was how it was perceived.
"I would not in any way look at that and say that it was anti-Semitic. Harris is the one who's played the race card in this campaign by distorting my views on affirmative action," Webb countered.
Miller has racked up two dozen endorsements from state legislators and a long list of local Democratic elected officials. Webb has the backing of nine Senate Democrats, including a rare preprimary endorsement last week from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its chairman, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York.
Schumer said Webb was the party's "best hope" for defeating Allen, a cowboy-booted, tobacco-dipping former governor.
In April, when both campaigns were peddling allegations against each other daily to the media, it was Schumer who sent both campaigns a terse warning: Cool it.
But by late May, they were at it again.
In a regionally televised debate, Webb impugned Miller's labor record and highlighted his role as a lobbyist, a label made more damaging by recent influence-peddling scandals in Washington.
Webb, Miller counters, "opposed equal opportunity for women in the military" and was "dismissive of the Tailhook sexual harassment scandal" in the Navy in the early 1990s.
Miller, a longtime Fairfax County Democratic activist, is running only his second campaign. He unsuccessfully sought the party's nomination for a House seat from Virginia in 1984.
Webb, who was Navy secretary for President Reagan in 1987-88, endorsed Bush and Allen six years ago. A longtime critic of invading Iraq, he broke with Bush and the GOP.
The friction stems from two distinct personalities and campaign visions.
Webb, 60, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran with a rigid military bearing, says he is trying to bring home Democrats who abandoned the party in 1980 for Reagan but have grown tired of Bush. He wears desert-style combat boots and bills himself as "George Allen's worst nightmare."
Miller, 54, worked in Pennsylvania steel mills as a teenager and became a Capitol Hill insider, wealthy businessman and lobbyist for the Internet industry. He is exhorting party loyalists to stay true to their liberal roots and wary of Webb's Republican past.
When the attacks begin, regardless of who struck first, they escalate, driven by the political consultants' doctrine of letting no slight go unanswered, said Steve Jarding, a veteran Democratic strategist and adviser to Webb.
"No campaign really wants to see this happen, but there is an old adage ... that says that when you're hit with a negative attack, you have to respond," Jarding said.
Not only are both candidates doing Allen's hatchet work for him, a campaign so rancorous can leave a party divided and unenthusiastic about its eventual nominee, said Merle Black, professor of politics at Emory University in Atlanta.
"If extreme rhetoric is being used to characterize the opposition here, then it really poisons the atmosphere," Black said. "Supporters for the losing candidate might be lukewarm this fall and they may vote for the nominee but not give money or volunteer."
The Republican each hopes to defeat savors the spectacle of the two Democrats savaging each other.
"Webb accuses Miller of being a wealthy Washington, D.C., lobbyist and Miller accuses Webb of being a Republican-turned-Democrat-turned back Republican-turned-Democrat again," Dick Wadhams, chief of Allen's campaign staff, said with a gleeful chuckle. "We think they're both right."
Allen holds a huge financial edge over either Democrat. He had $7.5 million on hand for his campaign at the end of May, according to Federal Election Commission records.