Republican gubernatorial candidate John N. Dalton today called on every independent conservative political group in Virginia to cease all television, radio, or newspaper advertisements attacking Democrat Henry E. Howell.
Dalton acted as the controversy over commercials prepared by two independent political action committees to "expose" Howell's record began to dominate news coverage of the Virginia governor's race. Dalton said the inaccuracies in the ads prepared by the Independent Virginians for Responsible Government "have only given Henry Howell an opportunity to martyr himself . . . This kind of independent negative advertising is unnecessary and counterproductive," he said.
Dalton said he was asking for the withdrawal of the ads because of ethics rather than tactics. He said he had taken no poll to determine if the dispute surrounding the ads was affecting his chances of victory.
"I will win this election on my own and I do not want the situation . . . confused by efforts independent of the Dalton campaign," Dalton said. The commercials allow Howell to "avoid the issues" and to "raise the specter of outside forces ganging up to defeat him."
Howell's compaign manager immediately said that Dalton's decision to ask that the ads not be shown was an effort to cut his losses. "It's obvious to anyone familiar with this campaign that a backlash has developed," William Rosendahl said "(Datlon) is on the defensive."
Dalton took his action after five Virginia television stations refused to run commercials prepared by the Independent Virginians for Responsible Government (IRVG), saying they opjected to the inaccuracies or they feared that charges leveled against Howell in the ads would leave them obligated to accede to demands for rebuttal time under the fairness doctrine.
The Republican candidate on Sunday had sent a letter to Howell and two Virginia broadcasters citing his concern over inaccuracies in the ads and disassociating himself from them. He said today's action followed a meeting of his steering committee at which the IVRG commercials were discussed as well as other anti-Howell ads reportedly under preparation by the group called Americans Against Union Control of Government.
Dalton repeated today that he had no previous knowledge of either group or the advertising campaigns they have planned. He said he didn't think he had ever met anyone associated with the commercials.
He tempered his remarks, however, with praise for Kenenth District U.S. Rep. J. Kenneth Robinson (R.Va.), who had sent out a fund-raising letter on the IVRG's behalf. The Fairfax County Fair Campaign Practices Commission ruled unanimously Tuesday that Robinson's letter violated the commission's code of campaign ethics. The commission has no legal power to enforce its rulings.
"I know Congressman Robinson thought he was doing the right thing," Dalton said. "Henry Howell generates a lot of strong feelings in Virginia."
Dalton also said he had the "utmost respect" for former State GOP Chairman Richard D. Obenshain a member of this campaign steering committee, and said he had no knowledge that Obenshain is listed in campaign finance reports as a member of the Virginia Conservative Political Action Committee, which funneled seed money to the IVRG.
Obenshain, reached later by phone, said his name was erroneously listed on the finance records. He said he joined the Virginia Conservative Political Action Committee (VCPAC) when it was formed early this year to assist conservative candidates for the Virginia General Assembly. But he said he resigned "about three months ago" because of his position with the Dalton campaign. He said he could not remember the exact date he resigned and had no letter of resignation or other documentation of the act.
"All this business with the commercials has thrown a lot of controversy around this committee now, but it didn't seem necessary at the time," he said. "I just handled it with a friendly phone call" to VCPAC member Roger Stone.
Dalton's move today was doubly unusual in that independent campaign committees long have been traditional in Virginia politics.
To preserve the appearance of political gentility in which Virginians always have taken great pride, the committees and their chairmen usually have been cast with the role of attacking the candidate opposed to the Byrd organization, while the organization candidate himself rode the high road to electoral success.
"I realize Henry Howell generates a lot of strong feelings in Virginia and many people . . . are determined to make certain he is not elected governor." But Dalton said he "must be in the position of being responsible for my campaign advertising," and urged those dedicated to Howell's defeat ot channel their efforts through the regular Dalton headquarters and the Dalton campaign.
The chairman of the Independent Virginians group, John T. Dolan, could not be reached for comment. Dolan is also executive director of National Conservative Political Action Committee, which provided the seed money for IVRG.
Rep. Herbert E. Harris (D-Va.) said yesterday he will write Robinson and ask him to return the money contributed in response to IVRG's fund raising letter. In an exchange of letters following the release of the fund-raising appeal, Robinson wrote Harris said. "Now obviously it can't be used for that purpose, so I think he should send the money back so that Dolan can't use it in some other state."
Dolan said Tuesday that Television station WXEX in Richmond had agreed to run IVRG's commercials. However, WXEX program director Ted Kohl said yesterday that the station has in fact refused to run them. "We are not running anything I've seen," Kohl said, "They contain quotes taken out of context and one has an obvious error.We did accept their order and money ahead of time as we require of all political advertising, but we will be sending it back." Four other television stations refused earlier this week to broadcast the IVRG advertisements.