THEY CALL HER "the nominette." "Georgia McGovern." "Edythe Ann." Those are the nice names.
If Virginia is indeed a state bordered on all sides by reality, no one knows it better than Edythe (Edie) Harrison, 50-year-old former state delegate, founder of the Virginia Opera Association and first woman to be nominated for the United States Senate in the Old Dominion by a major political party: "Democrats have lost this seat for nearly 20 years because it's one male candidate running against another male candidate. They sound alike: Tweedledum and Tweedledee."
A liberal Democrat and outspoken feminist with a flair for floppy bow ties, Cherries-in-the-Snow lipstick and a staccato stream of verbiage, she is trying to unseat the strait-laced, seemingly invincible Sen. John W. Warner in what political observers are calling one of the most lopsided races in recent history. (The latest poll by the Richmond Times-Dispatch shows Warner with a substantial lead: 60 percent to Harrison's 24 percent, with 16 percent undecided.)
As a woman ("nobody believed I'd get the nomination"), she is running an uphill battle not only against Warner, but also against what she feels he represents: the old boy network of Virginia Gentlemen who still believe a woman's place is in the house. Not the Senate.
Even members of her own party are skeptical about Harrison's chances. They say she's hopelessly underfinanced. She has raised a reported $400,000 ($100,000 of which came from her own pocket) compared with Warner's war chest, which the senator's campaign workers estimate at close to $2 million.
They point to the fact that she got the nomination only after a dozen or more candidates -- at least half of them personally approached by Gov. Charles S. Robb -- examined Warner's proven fund-raising capability and withdrew from consideration. Robb's much reported search for an alternative to Harrison led Norfolk editorial writers to suggest a new bumper sticker: "Honk If Chuck Has Asked You to Run."
Warner, they all feared, was unbeatable. He had not, they agreed, made any major mistakes. Robb, who was quoted in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot as saying Harrison wasn't even his sixth choice, has kept his support for her at the lukewarm level.
None of this has stopped Edie Harrison. Not the child prodigy who was singing and dancing professionally by the age of 5, later hosted USO shows and even later became "Miss Edie," the Keebler cracker girl on Norfolk local television.
"Pushy," "irrepressible" and "shrill" are adjectives that have been associated with her name. So is "abrasive."
"That's because I'm a woman," she says over lunch of a club sandwich (mayo on the side) and Perrier in a Washington restaurant. "If I were a man, I'd be, let's see, what's the male word for abrasive? Confident. Secure. Feet on the ground." Later, she hits on the real reason. "I'm not abrasive. I'm Virgo."
She arrives at lunch like a skydiver whose chute won't open.
She spends 10 minutes complaining that the ink from newspapers is rubbing off on her hands. She wants to know why. She also explains that her plane was late and launches into a five-minute discourse on flight delays and how much they're costing the taxpayers. She stops the conversation several times to eavesdrop ("It's a terrible habit of mine. You can pick up the most wonderful things eavesdropping at lunch"), schmoozes with two men at the next table and takes a phone call (Paging Missus Harrison) from her daughter, whose car has broken down.
She also giggles a lot. She says she has a great sense of humor. She is an attractive woman, with dark brown hair parted on the side, deep red lipstick, huge brown eyes. She wears a Cartier tank watch on one wrist, a wide gold bracelet on the other and a no-nonsense diamond the size of a lug nut on her left ring finger. She is a straightforward woman. A feminist version of Mary Tyler Moore. But with her heavy nasal Detroit accent and penchant for running -- and winning -- the verbal marathon with most acquaintances, she sometimes comes across more like a character from Lily Tomlin's repertoire.
"Virginia," says H. Watkins Ellerson, former Orange County Democratic chairman, "is not ready for a woman senator."
Warner spokesman Peter Loomis disagrees. "It's not that Virginia is not ready for a woman U.S. Senator," he says. "I think they're not ready for a woman with the liberal philosophical bent of Edie Harrison."
Early in the campaign she questioned Warner's character by citing his two failed marriages (the first to heiress Catherine Mellon, the second to actress Elizabeth Taylor) and portrayed herself as more solid senatorial stuff, at least matrimonially. She even considered a bumper sticker, "Liz Was Right," and she boasted that "Women took him up and a woman is going to bring him down."
She has since dropped that line of attack from the campaign, although in an interview she repeatedly referred to her "traditional" 28-year-old marriage and three children.
She also suggested that Senate candidates should be able to park in spaces reserved for the handicapped to save time. She later defended the statement as "a weak joke."
On job skills: "If more people have skills, they'd get jobs and the less people are going to want to break into my house."
On Warner: "He took over the seat from Senator William Scott, who was voted the dumbest man in the Senate. He's Warner's just continuing the tradition."
On Marriage and the Family: "You know what has changed family life in America? The blow dryer. You know, a middle-aged guy couldn't get a date when he was younger. All of a sudden he marries some girl who puts him through school. One day he buys a blow dryer, lets his hair grow longer, changes his look. Every time he looks at his wife, he sees himself. Who he really is. But he doesn't want to see that anymore. So he has to find somebody who sees him as he would like to be."
She also says it might be a good idea to give brain scans to all political candidates.
While shopping in a department store with a reporter in tow, she didn't want to wait for an unoccupied dressing room and, instead, slipped the garment over her clothes in view of the other shoppers.
She compares herself to Geraldine Ferraro. Aside from the fact that both husbands are wealthy real estate developers, "There is a similarity in straightforwardness, in guts, in humor. I'm a very, very relaxed, loving-life type of person. I'm not a bit uptight. I'm not a bit intimidated or frightened by anything."
"In order for her to win," says Larry Sabato, political analyst and professor of political science at the University of Virginia, "lightning would have to strike five times in the same place, and that's not going to happen."
It's not that Warner is so entrenched, Sabato says. "His support is a mile wide and an inch deep. He only won the last time by 4,700 votes, and that was mainly because of Elizabeth Taylor." It's because Harrison has failed to win a broad base of support.
At a recent chili dinner fundraiser at the home of former California representative James C. Corman in McLean, it was reported that only one person -- aside from campaign workers, staff and the press -- showed up. Corman himself didn't even make it. Harrison later complained about the food and the event to a reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and also cited her hostess' "plastic" personality.
Nancy Corman, who gave the fundraiser, said last week she had never met Harrison before and found the candidate's complaints about the food "tacky."
"I didn't know her. I only did it because my husband asked me to. I put together what I could." Corman says she doesn't know how many people were at the fundraiser and, asked to comment on Harrison, replied, "She seemed very pleasant. Certainly not the least bit plastic."
Earlier this week, Matt Reese, a Rossyln-based political consultant hired to mobilize volunteer workers for Harrison, left the campaign.
Asked if the parting had been amicable, Reese said yesterday, "There's always friction in a campaign. She's an aggressive, sometimes difficult candidate." He paused, then added, "But I'm an aggressive, sometimes difficult consultant."
Asked if it all comes down to money -- or the lack of it -- he replied, "Basically, yes."
If Harrison is having trouble drumming up financial support, it may be because she is not taken seriously by party regulars, Sabato says. "Privately they deride her. They always have."
The "old boy network" is still smarting from a bitter primary two years ago when Harrison moved across a newly drawn political district line in Norfolk to run for delegate against her former running mate, Virginia House Majority Leader Tom Moss. Harrison lost, but only after waging a fierce campaign that earned her the nickname "Edie Amin."
An editorial in the Newport News Daily Press this summer opined, "She has established within political circles a reputation as a passionate, intelligent, often articulate eccentric whom legislators have treated at times almost like a court jester."
Asked to describe Harrison's style, Sabato says, "She's very energetic. A real go-getter. She's not afraid of Warner."
Indeed, in their first of three scheduled debates (the second is this Friday), Harrison -- a pro-choice, pro-Equal Rights Amendment candidate who sees the budget deficit as the most important campaign issue -- more than managed to hold her own against the more experienced Warner. Says Sabato, "She's more aggressive than most women in politics."
Last spring, Sabato says, he was quoted in a newspaper story as saying that Harrison was "caustic."
A month later, he attended a political dinner. In the middle of the first course, Harrison came over to his table, pulled his chair out and in front of the startled and somewhat amused gathering, Sabato says, started "screaming, 'I AM NOT CAUSTIC.' "
She was born Edythe Colton in Detroit, Sept. 17, 1934, the only daughter of a dentist. (She has one older brother.) Her mother was a professional pianist. She grew up in an upper-middle-class household, and the expectations were high.
"I was a child star," she laughs. "I'll tell you how I got the name Edie. I was a very rambunctious child with a tremendous amount of energy. My mother was a graduate of the Paris Conservatory. I was raised in a household with a lot of achievers.
"I didn't know," she says, "that people could just be ordinary and have a wonderful life."
She takes a bite of her sandwich. "You'd have to ask my mother more about me, but there were never enough hours in the day to do everything I liked to do. I was just a high energy child. I had a talent for talking and communicating, and I was a very good actress, a good dancer, a good singer and pianist. Of course, I took six lessons a week."
The day she started kindergarten, "I walked to the principal's office and asked to call my father and tell him to come and get me because I didn't want to stay there because we weren't doing anything. I was bored."
Instead of skipping her ahead, Edie's parents decided to keep their child at home. Cut off from her peers, she threw herself into performing. "I practiced all the time," she recalls. "Any audience I could get."
Little Edie was born.
She began performing at children's hospitals and other events and soon Hollywood beckoned. But her father refused to allow a screen test. "He didn't think it was a normal life."
By this time, she was enrolled in grade school and had become, by her own definition, "very social." Harrison organized clubs for every day of the week. They were the students who walked with her home from school. "I had my Monday club, my Tuesday club. I was always organizing."
And always aware of the parental high standards.
Her fourth-grade teacher, she says, used to "pull out the gray hairs on my head and put them in an envelope to take to my mother with a message, 'Stop worrying her.' "
She became president of her class, and later president of her sorority. "When I was little, I was always president."
An early start in politics?
"Not really. I never ran against anybody."
After high school, she enrolled in Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., "because at that time, it was the only school with a professional playhouse in the country where you could act with professionals. But when I got there I realized to be part of the Playhouse you had to major in that, and I didn't want to major in that. I wanted to take liberal arts."
So she transferred to Finch College (which has since closed) and later enrolled at Wayne State University.
In 1954, she met her future husband, Stanley Harrison, when, on the way to Norfolk to visit a friend, she stopped in Pennsylvania for a college sorority reunion.
"I knew there would be a lot of boys there from Norfolk, and I figured I could get a ride. The first day there I was sitting on the edge of the pool and I looked up and there was this raft. A guy was sitting on the raft, the sun in his eyes. The girl was lying on it. I motioned for him to come to shore. He could have been married! He thought maybe he knew me. He paddled to the shore, got off and sat on the edge and the girl sat beside him. I said, 'Hi, what's your name?' He said, 'Snooks.' I said, 'Take me on your raft.' He said, 'Later.' I said, 'No, not later, NOW.' He said, 'Later.' I said, 'NOW. I WANNA GO NOW,' and off we went.
"I would have married him right then," she says.
An impulsive woman, our Miss Edie.
"No." She pauses. "Well, maybe I am."
They were married a year later and settled in Norfolk, where Stanley Harrison continued his career as a real estate developer and his wife became a regular on a local television show, "Hometown Hoedown."
"I came home one day and said, 'I got a job.' He said 'You got a what?' I said, 'A job.' "
She repeats the word, singing a cappella. "A Jaaaay-Ohhhh-Beeee."
Her husband didn't want her to work.
"I said, 'What's so terrible about work? Everybody works.' He says, 'Women don't work. My mother never worked. You just got married. You should be writing your thank-you notes.' "
Her first assignment was "Miss Edie," the Streetman Cracker Girl (the company later became Keebler). Her job was to break a Townhouse cracker in half. But the cracker kept dissolving into crumbs. "Why would anyone break a cracker? You can stick the whole damn thing in your mouth. I used to come early to the show to practice."
When it came time to snap the cracker in two, it dissolved into crumbs. On cue, Harrison chirped, "Whole or crumbled, they're delicious."
She became interested in politics a few years later when she met a young lawyer friend of her husband's, Henry Howell, who would eventually be elected lieutenant governor and would fail three times in his quest for the governorship.
Harrison joined Howell in his campaign to reopen Norfolk's public schools, which had closed in response to the state's Massive Resistance program against desegregation.
"I recognized at an early age that it's politics that decides who lives and dies. Who eats and who doesn't eat, and when and where wars are fought. If you want to be part of the system, you have to be involved."
She threw herself into volunteer work and in 1974 founded the Virginia Opera Association. Always active in the Democratic Party, she was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1979, where she became concerned with womens' issues. Her tenure was marked by her fight for a bill requiring physicians to obtain the "informed consent" of female cancer patients before performing mastectomies. A similar bill became law this year. She won approval for a bill to use advanced blood tests to determine paternity in child support cases.
"I've always driven myself. Nobody's ever driven me. I was born that way. You see a problem, and you see that you have the solution to that problem. I'm not going to sit back and say, 'Let them take care of it.' I am them. Who are the people you remember in history? The people who went out there and did something when everybody said it couldn't be done.
"A lot of people just want to be spectators. I don't. I would like to be a competitor. And I have no fear."
Nobody, she says, "has ever considered me a flake."
It's almost noon and she's expected at the McLean Rotary Club luncheon, where she will speak on the importance of small businesses.
The phone is ringing in the campaign headquarters above the 7-Eleven in Falls Church, she can't locate her tickets for that night's Democratic National Committee gala, and the night before she was awakened twice by fire alarms at the Old Town Holiday Inn in Alexandria. "You shoulda seen me. I was out on the sidewalk in my bathrobe. I ran into another woman there, a friend. It was so funny. You know what she had taken from her room? Her makeup bag. That was the first thing she grabbed."
What did Harrison grab?
She leaves the office, climbs into the car and is driven to the luncheon at Evans Farm Inn in McLean.
After a quick makeup check in the ladies' room, she greets the Rotarians and takes her seat at the head table in The Plantation Room.
The men open the meeting with a patriotic song. Piano accompaniment. "GOD BLESS AMERICA," they sing. "LAND THAT I LUUUUV."
Edie stands and sings. She is the only woman in the room, which is filled with gray-suited businessmen sipping Bloody Marys.
"I'm very interested in hearing her," says Stanley Richards, a Tysons Corner businessman. "We haven't really heard anything about her up here at all. She's willing to run against Warner. Nobody else was."
Does she have a chance?
Meanwhile, there's still another month of lunches and oyster roasts, chicken dinners and political coffee hours. She says she needs to go shopping for a new pair of shoes. She says her family -- especially her husband -- has been very supportive of her.
"My husband came home one night. I was working on some human rights provisions. He said, 'I hate to see you so distraught. You can't do anything about it. Why don't you worry about something you can do something about?' I said, 'Like what?' He said, 'Something that would have a direct effect on people.' I said, 'Like what?'
"He said, 'Like remembering to go to the cleaners.' Remembering to go to the grocery store. That would have a direct, immediate effect on humanity.' I said, 'Anybody can do that!' He said, 'Anybody can do it, but nobody's doing it around here.' "
She giggles heartily.
"I don't say it's a blessing to be this way. Maybe it's a 'Type A' personality, and you'll read about me in the obituary column. A lot of people like me burn up early. They use up all their energy.
"It could have been easy," she says quietly. "I chose to make it difficult. I could have played golf, I suppose."