"Good morning ladies," boomed the bespectacled man to the three customers and two tellers at the cashier's windows. "This is Henry Howel campaigning for governor right here in the Farmer's and Merchant's Bank of Boonesville, Va. A vote for Henry Howell will pay big dividends and high interest to all small banks and their depositors."
The antic muse of Virginia politics was on the loose again, storming the small towns and country stores of the Blue Ridge foothills, leaving a trail of autographed Polaroid pictures and calling forth the ghosts and echoes of campaign past.
A little grayer, a little heavier and a lot poorer than he was four years ago, he was resurrecting an old magic magic of politics as comedy, hoping to laugh up the gubernatorial victory that has eluded him in the past.
But his audience, while friendly, had seen the show before.
"I don't think he is doing as well here as he did in '72," said Bob Martin, editor of the Bull Mountain Bugle weekly newspaper in Patrick County. "It's just a personal feeling I don't know. Yet most everybody likes him . . ."
"I think it's a tossup," said Blaine Halterman, 66, a 14-year member of the Franklin County Board of Supervisors, as Howell blitzed the Boonesville bank. "But I'll tell you one thing; if he does win the primaries, (Republican gubernatorial candidate) John Dalton will whip his tail in his county so bad you can't imagine. And this is Democratic territory."
For Howell, the former lieutanant governor and state senator from Norfolk and self-styled people's candidate, today's campaigning should have been a journey over preseeded ground - a motor-home tour from Roanoke south to Martinsville through three green hill counties he carried in 1972.
And there were plently of bright spots. He met a previously indiscovered 84-year-old cousin at a general store near Stuart, which boasts the mounted heads of a two-headed calf.
He had his pictures taken with a rubber chicken ("It's like the Virginia consumer: picked clean") at a country music radio station in Rocky Mount. And he recapped his campaign stands before the tire-repair bay of Martin's Texaco in Patrick Springs.
His campaign workers, who target key country stores with 200 or more customers, mounted his poster in what one called "the ultimate bionic country store" with 2,000 regular customers near the Henry County community of Horsepasture.
There was a generally agreeable reception from workers changing shifts at the Dupont plant in Martinsville.
But to defeat former Attorney General Andrew P. Miller in the June 14 Democratic primary, Howell will need much more. Last time, against Tidewater-bred Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr., he carried Franklin, Patrick and Henry - the counties he toured today - and still lost the election.
This time he's facing Miller, a Southwest Viginian, in these mountain counties where regional loyalties are strong. One searched in vain today for signs of the unexpected surge, the campaign breakthrough.
Instead there was just Henry Howell broadcasting his cagey charm from the bullhorn of the Winnebago as it moved through Virginia's green hills toward election day.
"Big utilities better be on the lookout," he thundered, as the motor home passed a welder building wood stoves. "Wood stoves are coming back. Buy your wood stoves here in Rocky Mount where the best wood stoves are made."
"Henry Howell is for the farmer," he called as the Winnebago streaked past a tractor-borne figure and some startled cows.
"Here we are in the fine Martinsville Dupont plant where good workers make all that fine nylon," he broadcast, rolling up to the plant gate. "It's a good corporate neighbor . . . we are most grateful that Pierre and Mrs. duPont had such creative children.
"here," he said to editor Kermit Salyer as he left the Franklin County News-Post in Rocky Mount. "I want to give you a copy of this booklet called 'the Wit and Wisdom of Henry Howell.' It's a lot of help. Whenever you can't meet the payroll, just pick it up and read a joke out loud."