Jimmy Carter came to the remote mountain hollows of Southwest Virginia to help Henry E. Howell in 1973 when Howell needed him most during his gubernatorial campaign. Two years later Howell declared his support for Carter when the President was still "Jimmy Who".
Today Howell is again running for governor and, despite a campaign manager who insists "we're not trying to get elected on Carter's coattails," Howell seems to be saying something else. "I'm pleased as I can be to say I sleep every night in a bed that our President slept in", he reminds voters at almost every campaign stops.
Even though Virginia was the only Southern state that Carter failed to win last year, both Howell and his campaign staff are convinced that the Prresident' name is an asset and they are doing their best to exploit the Carter-Howell relationship.
Carter and his programs are stressed in much of Howell's literature. A new Howell bumper sticker asks: "Whey not our best?" playing on the title of Carter's autobiography. A Howell brochure features Carter standing on the porch of Howell's home with his arm around Howell's wife, Betty.
Within the White House itself the staff closest to the President is reported to be sharply dividen over what they should do for Howell in his primary campaign against former Virginia Attorney General Andrew P. Miller, who did not support Carter until shortly before Carter's nomination. "It's a natural loyalty to a man who was there (with his support for Carter) at the beginning," a White House officials said.
Officially, the White House is neutral and with good reason, according to Press Secretary Jody Powell. "It's not good for the party and it's not good for the President" to get involved in party contests, Powell said Monday, recalling the bitter memories of many Georgia politicians over Franklin D. Roosevelt's unsuccessful efforts to unseat Sen. Walter George in 1938.
Even so, Howell staffers are quick to note how many of the Carter campaign consultants they are using. Carter pollster Patrick H. Caddell, for example, is doing Howell's polls. Because of Caddell's ties to Carter, the Howell people are getting "a little extra time" from Caddell, said Howell campaign manager Paul Goldman.
Carter advertising man Gerald Rafshoon of Atlanta is being touted as Howell's media adviser and Carter telephone advisers are said to have been hired to run telephone banks for Howell in key areas of the state.
What direct White House help the Carter staff has given Howell is difficult to ascertain, but one Northern Virginia official said she has been supplied with lists of potential financial contributors. Goldman confirmed that the lists have been given Howell, but said they are lists that are available to anyone.
Still, a telephone interview with Goldman does little to dispel the notion that there is contact between the White House and Howell staff. "Could you hold on one minute?" Goldman asked during one conversation. "It happens to be the White House on the other line."
Bill Rosendahl, executive director of the Howell campaign, doesn't hurt the image when he leaves a telephone number for a reporter while he is campaigning in Northern Virginia. The reporter dialed the number, 456-1414, and an operator answered: "White House".
Tenuous though these ties between Howell and Carter may be, they are, nonetheless, visible evidence to Howell's efforts to link himself to the Carter White House and thus achieve the victory that so painfully eluded him four years ago in his race with Republican Mills E. Godwin.
When asked, Howell staffers say their contacts with the White House are only "personal calls" and maintain they don't want Carter's support in the primary. But, they quickly, add, Carter's open support will be more than welcome in the general election when the winner of the June 14 primary will face Republican Lt. Gov. John N. Dalton, the only candidate for his party's nomination.
Only in Northern Virginia do Howell campaign officials seem wary of the efforts of Howell's staff to portray their candidate as a close friend of Carter. "Frankly, I'd just as soon cool the Carter connection", said Howell's Eighth Congressional district coordinator, Pixie Bell.
Carter was soundly defeated by President Ford in populous Fairfax County and Howell aides there are known to be worried about their chances to carrying the county.
Last week differences over the Carter energy program surfaced as one of the major issues in the current campaign. The night of Carter's first energy message, Howell enthusiastically endored the President's plan, promising to trade in his agin black Chrysler for a smaller car and offering to convert his home oild furnace to a coalfired one, "if feasible".
But Miller, in a Richmond debate, reacted coldly to the Carter plan and ridiculed Howell's endorsement. "Saying that the Carter proposals are the be-all to the energy problem is not a mature reaction," Miller said.
As yet neither Miller nor any state pary officials have complained about Howell's attempts to link himself with the White House. But State Party Chairman Joseph T. Fitzpatrick has publicly states that he is advising he White House to avoid taking sides in the primary, because a Carter endorsement would seriously split the party and hurt any chances of defeating Dalton.
Last February, when Carter invited Howell to attend entertainment after the first White House state dinner, Fitzpatrick cautioned that Miller should be invited to a similar event.
Howell eagerly went to the event and now delights in telling audiences how Carter's top assistant, Hamilton Jordan, pierced his "brand new tuxedo" with a "I believe in Henry Howell" campaign button. "You didn't think of kings and queens, it was just like Jimmy Carter was when he came in our yard in Norfolk, except he was now the President and we were in the White House," Howell told his campaign workers in a newsletter after party officials have complained about the party.
To be sure, there is a genuine reason for such warm relations beteen Carter and Howell, As Georgia governor, Carter visited Virginia twice in 1973 to campaign for Howell, then running as an independent.
Carter and members of his immediate family and staff, have often stayed at the Howell home in Norfolk and consider themselves as personal friends of the former Virginia lieutenant governor. Howell was the first major Virginia politician to endorse Carter and for many months last year was the only major figure backing Carter in the state.
Their frienship ran so deep that some Carter officials in Virginia said privately last year that they had to restrain Howell from making so many appearances around the state, lest they appear to be favoring him over Miller. The Howell-Carter tie "is a personal relationship, forged like iron by a blacksmith in the heat of battle," Goldman said.
For their part the Miler officials seem unconcerned over the question of any Carter influence in the current primary. It's well known that their campaign is generally better financed and organized this year than Howell's and, as Darrell Martin, a Miller field director, put it recently: "After all, the last President to intervene successfully in Virginia politics was Abraham Lincoln."