Jim Webb makes small splash in first Democratic debate

One of the most accomplished presidential candidates got his first shot at the national spotlight Tuesday night as five Democratic hopefuls gathered in Las Vegas for their first debate.

Jim Webb, a decorated Marine war veteran, Emmy-winning journalist, former secretary of the Navy, bestselling author, and former U.S. senator from Virginia, showed his crusty side in a forum that was dominated by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. 

Webb famously does not like to campaign, and has made only a few stops in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Nor does he like to raise money, a novelty in a campaign season that has seen PACs raise millions of dollars to support candidates through ad buys.

Webb's unconventional campaign includes an unconventional message: a traditional Jacksonian populism that has failed to interest likely Democratic primary voters. He currently polls at less that 1 percent in national surveys.

In Tuesday night's debate on CNN, Webb touted his Senate record, as well as his family's background. He said America's "working people" would be his top priority as president, a theme he has also explored in his books, which include the Vietnam War novel "Fields of Fire" as well as "Born Fighting," a popular history of the Scots-Irish in the United States.

Webb draws hope for his long shot campaign from personal experience. In 2006, he surprised Virginia, a key swing state, by defeating the heavily favored George Allen for a U.S. Senate seat. In the upper chamber, Webb voted for the Affordable Care Act but stood out among Democrats in expressing disenchantment with the Obama administration. He declined to seek a second term in 2012. 

The bulk of the night's attention went to the front-runners: former secretary of state Clinton and Vermont Sen. Sanders.

Clinton pressed Sanders to defend his opposition to certain gun control measures. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley joined in, accusing Sanders of "pandering" to the National Rifle Association.

Webb pivoted on gun rights, highlighting the need for mental health screenings, but also calling out the other candidates for seeking to deny citizens the self-defense abilities the candidates themselves have in abundance. 

"There are people at high levels in this government who have bodyguards 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Webb said. "The average American does not have that, and deserves the right to be able to protect their family."

But looming over the debate was a candidate who wasn't there, and isn't a Democrat: Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

Trump live tweeted the debate, offering his by-now trademarked barbs. Of former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee, Trump asked if anyone could imagine him in a room with Putin. Of Webb, he asked: "Why is Webb there??"

The Democrats were aware of the billionaire real estate investor's presence. At one point, in a discussion of immigration, O'Malley called Trump a "carnival barker."

All the candidates expressed wariness of escalating the U.S. intervention in Syria. But Clinton was dogged by an intervention her State Department oversaw: the ouster of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and the subsequent collapse of Libya. 

Clinton, who will appear later this month before a House committee investigating her role in an Islamist attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, which killed four Americans including the ambassador to Libya.

Clinton took a swipe at the committee investigation, charging it was little more than an arm of the Republican National Committee, and designed to drive down her poll numbers. Sanders said the American people "are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails."

A visibly irritated Webb frequently complained that he was not allowed to speak his peace, and each time moderator Anderson Cooper reminded him that he agreed to the debate format. "This isn't equal time," Webb said at one point.

But Webb did get time to distinguish himself from the field.

He endorsed the idea of securing the borders. And when asked how his presidency would not be a third Obama term, Webb said to Sanders: "I don't think the revolution is going to come."

The final question the candidates were asked was who they were proudest of to have as an enemy. Chaffee said "the coal lobby." O'Malley said the NRA. Clinton had a long list, but got the most applause for naming the Republicans. Sanders picked Wall Street and the pharmaceutical companies.

Webb's proudest enemy? The enemy soldier who threw a grenade at him during the Vietnam War. An enemy who isn't around any more.