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Sensing Victory in Governor's Race, GOP Stumps for House Majority

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 1997; Page B05

CROZET, Va.óMany bumpers here in the Blue Ridge Mountains west of Charlottesville sport an odd pair of stickers: "Clinton-Gore" and "GOPaul," touting Paul Harris, a Republican candidate for the House of Delegates.

Harris, who grew up in public housing in Charlottesville, served as an Army paratrooper, then came back home to practice law, is working to persuade fellow African Americans to vote Republican for the first time. The 33-year-old avoids controversial conservative issues and sticks to a vague but comforting mantra of "faith, family and freedom."

"Liberalism is really liberal-wasm," the crew-cut Harris said at a picnic here Saturday, where supporters munched pizza and sipped apple cider, surrounded by "No Car Tax!" posters.

Harris is hoping to make history as the first black Republican to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates since 1891. Republican legislative leaders hope he will make history a second way, by helping them win a majority in the House of Delegates after 100 years of Democratic control.

That possibility, widely hyped by Republicans two years ago, was mostly dismissed in this year's campaign until the last week, when three polls showed Republican James S. Gilmore III jumping to a lead in the Virginia governor's race after being deadlocked all year with Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr.

Republicans need to pick up just four seats to win control of the 100-member House, and both parties agree that six races are close. So a big Gilmore day could create a bandwagon.

"We deliberately downplayed it," said Chris LaCivita, executive director of the Virginia Republican Party. "Now, we feel like we're in the driver's seat."

As a sign of Gilmore's confidence, on the stump last week he took a breath between plugs for his car-tax cut and for the first time began pitching the House candidates, promising to send Republicans "back to a majority."

Other officials are beginning to trumpet the stakes. "It's hard to imagine getting a significant tax cut, even with a Republican governor, unless we have a Republican House," said J. Scott Leake, executive director of the Joint Republican Caucus, which helps finance party campaigns.

Republican control also would bring a shift in power from rural Virginia to Northern Virginia, since GOP delegates from Fairfax County and Manassas would become chairmen of the House's two most powerful committees -- appropriations and finance.

Gov. George Allen (R) has hit the trail to try to help tailor legislative coattails for Gilmore. Wearing a bolo tie and blue blazer, the governor told the crowd here, "We hope Jim Gilmore won't have to veto as many bills as I did."

Harris said in an interview that promises of lower taxes and less government "resonate extremely well in the black community. They just never had a Republican come in their living room to talk to them."

On Nov. 4, all 100 seats in the House will be up for election. In the last session the House had 53 Democrats, 46 Republicans and one independent. No senators run until 1999.

But control of both chambers is up for grabs on Election Day because the lieutenant governor breaks ties in the Senate, which is deadlocked 20-20. Former Representative L.F. Payne Jr. is the Democrat hoping to succeed Beyer in that post, while Republicans would get the upper hand in the Senate if John H. Hager, the retired tobacco executive, wins the number-two slot.

Republicans feel they're on such a roll that they're taking time to make a little mischief. Beginning today, the party is paying for thousands of phone calls into the Roanoke County district of the House Democratic leader, Del. C. Richard Cranwell. An operator asks people to hold for a call that "sounds like it's from the White House," then begins a tape of a cackling actor imitating President Clinton and urging voters to back "my bud Dickie Cranwell."

Democrats have mounted an aggressive defense of the House, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on polls and dropping a dozen mailings into key districts. One television ad shows a gruff power broker whose seat is threatened, Del. Alan A. Diamonstein, of Newport News, wearing a pastel V-neck sweater and reading to a group of grade school children.

Cranwell predicts Democrats will hold what they have and maybe pick up a seat. Of the Republicans' confidence, he said: "Toward the end of the ball, everyone starts thinking about fairyland. It's not going to happen."

Republicans say two of their most promising targets are in Fairfax County. Del. George E. Lovelace is a freshman Democrat in a district that tends to vote Republican. His GOP challenger, Jeannemarie Devolites (she says it's pronounced DEVIL-lites), mailed a video to 10,000 voters, showing her leading a Girl Scout troop in song and featuring an endorsement from U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a moderate Republican from Fairfax.

One of Devolites's campaign mailings used a dark-looking image of Lovelace, an African American, and criticized him for negative campaigning. Cranwell said the photo evoked the Willie Horton ads for George Bush in 1988. Devolites called it "an honest picture of George." And Davis says Devolites has contributions and support from several black leaders.

This weekend, Lovelace sent jumbo postcards with a picture of Devolites and inch-high capital letters calling her backers "extremists."

The other GOP prospect in Northern Virginia is Tom Bolvin, an insurance agent who's trying for the second time to unseat Del. Gladys B. Keating (D-Fairfax), who was first elected in 1977. LaCivita said Keating has "been in the House of Delegates too long for her own good."

Bolvin is the only Northern Virginia candidate getting a visit from Allen in the campaign's final week -- a sign that the party believes he can win. Davis, who has contributed to more than a dozen candidates around the state, gave Bolvin $10,000 more last week. Bolvin has concentrated on families that have moved into the district since the last election, and he has elaborate plans to build turnout among those new Fairfax residents.

The parties are following very separate paths to power. Democrats have focused on local issues. In a district where commercial sprawl is an issue, a radio ad for Del. George W. Grayson (D-James City), simulates the rustles, gavels and groans of a board of supervisors meeting as he attacks his opponent for voting to approve a development and "chop down a few more trees."

By contrast, the Republican candidates are echoing Gilmore's message of phasing out the personal property tax on cars and trucks and requesting state funding for 4,000 new teachers.

A cable-television ad in several Republican races shows a blond actor (in Northern Virginia, he wears a Washington Redskins jersey) lathering and wiping his Chevrolet Suburban and touting the GOP candidate as someone who will "fight for us" and "put a stop to this tax."

"Every one of our House candidates is running on what Jim Gilmore is proposing," LaCivita said. "It helped spread and reinforce his car-tax message. And it took off like a rocket. It helped our candidates."

Jay Reiff, director of the House Democratic Caucus, asserted that the result is that individual Republicans have little substance behind them.

"They become mere foot soldiers," Reiff said.

One of the six hot Republicans, Barnes L. "Barney" Kidd, of Tazewell County in southwest Virginia, has added two issues to the Gilmore menu: abolishing the front license plates on cars and eliminating the sales tax on food.

"He thinks it's a waste of money to have a front license plate," LaCivita explained, "and he thinks the sales tax on food is a crime."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company


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