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In Virginia Race for Governor,
The Bland Leading the Bland

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 1997; Page C01

Midway through the Women for Beyer rally in Alexandria last Tuesday, there were more folks on the stage in Market Square than there were in the audience.

One by one, the women -- a cop, a teacher, a blind woman, even Don Beyer's mother -- testified on behalf of the auto salesman turned politician. The speeches, like the candidate they lauded, were earnest, straightforward and explosively uninspiring.

At an evening fund-raiser recently at the Tower Club in Tysons Corner, James Gilmore haltingly delivered the simple three-syllable promise he offers up time after time: No Car Tax. His supporters applauded politely. There was no whooping and hollering.

So it goes this electoral cycle in the Old Dominion or the New Dominion or the Next Dominion struggling to emerge. The men running for governor -- Democrat Beyer and Republican Gilmore -- and the slates below them are so pallid, so listless, so lackluster, so lifeless that University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato calls this year's race a "charisma-free zone."

"I don't think either of these gentlemen have done anything to wildly set them apart from one another," says Jim Hardwick, owner of the Tanglewood Ordinary Restaurant outside of Richmond.

Libby Gross, an emergency medical technician in Tazewell, says she's unmoved by TV ads for both candidates. "I really haven't seen anything interesting about what they're trying to push for," Gross says. The men, she adds, are ho-hum.

Joseph M. Newton, general manager of Buckingham-Virginia Slate Corp. in Arvonia, says, "I just returned from a trip to Massachusetts where I was talking to 54 other companies from across the nation who are in the stone business."

Eventually, the conversation turned to politics "and the question of what's going on in your state," Newton says. "I had nothing to say."

"I know Jim Gilmore and I like Jim Gilmore. I think he would make a better governor than Don Beyer. I think he's pro-business," Newton continues, "but I don't think either gentleman's personality creates a lot of excitement, makes you want to click your heels."

Gilmore, a former state attorney general, begs to differ: "I'm giving people Jim Gilmore. I've kept my promises. I've done what I said I was going to do. It may not be sensational," he says, but "to come forward with a billion-dollar tax cut is pretty darned exciting."

Beyer, Virginia's lieutenant governor, says his charisma has been suppressed by the campaign's reliance on television advertising. "The easiest place to experience that charisma is when you have more than 30 seconds with someone."

He explains that he's trying to get his pro-education agenda before a lot of people in a very short time. He says the driving force of his campaign is: "Every person is important . . . and has the power to change Virginia."

Imbuing the electorate with excitement and passion is the key, he says, but "you don't do it necessarily with flowing hair and fiery eyes."

For quite a while, Virginia politics was actually pretty riveting. Who can forget the zeal of Ollie North in his bid to become Uber-patriot? North had an army of true believers, disciples with a gleam in their eyes. They shared North's view of the world: Not only was he not a criminal, he was the last defender of the faith.

And then there was Chuck Robb, who set tongues a-wagging about whether all he got in a hotel room from a former Miss Virginia was a back rub. The popular perception when he came on the scene was that he was going to join the ranks of Virginia presidents. After all, he was a decorated war hero, the son-in-law of a president and the perfect moderate to lead the state out of its Civil War mentality.

And Doug Wilder, the only black elected governor in American history. A volatile, shoot-from-the hip guy who charmed people one-on-one and mesmerized crowds by quoting Dylan Thomas and Ralph Waldo Emerson. And when things got too boring, he'd pull some stunt like taking the state helicopter to visit a billionaire's ex-wife.

And Henry Howell, a Southern-style populist who ran against Virginia Power and other state powers in the '70s. Or what about John Warner, who burst on the scene as Mr. Elizabeth Taylor with his flowing hair and fiery eyes? Look-alike Lizzes showed up at his rallies -- beauty marks and all. Those, as they say, were the days.

But now politics in the V-state is as dull as: dead grass, green peanuts and pond water.

As bland as: blue suits, red ties and black shoes.

As white as: bread.

It's like the old days, Sabato says, when the state's power structure liked to "purge the liveliness" from campaigns. "This is the kind of politics Virginia prefers. Political culture abhors change and tumult, and the state's had entirely too much of both. There are a lot of people who are greatly relieved."

"The last race like this was in 1961," Sabato recalls. That election was between Albertis S. Harrison, a governor handpicked by Sen. Harry Byrd's political machine, and "a Republican whose name I can't even remember. If I had to guess, I'd say it was Clyde Pearson." (It was Clyde Pearson.)

The "social disintegration and political restructuring" of the 1960s added some pizazz to state politics, Sabato says. "But even when you had a dull matchup for governor, such as in 1985 when Gerald Baliles ran against Wyatt Durrette, you had some excitement down-ticket. Doug Wilder and Mary Sue Terry were on Baliles' ticket."

This year, it's the same old same old. And with three weeks to go until the election, the two candidates are in a dead heat -- nearly dead.

Staff writer Donald P. Baker contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company


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