At noon yesterday, weeks of feverish and sometimes furtive maneuvering by key strategists for Virginia Democrat Henry E. Howell and Republican John N. Dalton ended abruptly.
For those aides and workers, the race for governor was over - frozen by the rules of most broadcasting stations that had imposed a noon Friday deadline for all advertising purchases prior to Tuesday's Virginia election.
As the broadcast battle ended yesterday, Dalton's supporters made their final "very scattered" purchases of television time around the state and Howell stratgeists groused over their failures to purchase a commercial in Washington during the Monday night Redskins-Colt game.
For weeks, purchasing television and radio time and raising the money for the purchases have been the prime worries of both the Howell and Dalton campaigns. Yesterday, it became apparent that the two candidates had locked in a virtual dead heat for total television and radio spending.
Howell's campaign placed its purchases at about $125,000, slightly behind the $135,000 that sources close to the Dalton campaign said constituted their "media buy." Dalton's campaign staff remained closed-mouthed to the end about their purchases, insisting, as William A. Royall, Dalton's smanager said, "We're not about to tell Henry what our strategy is."
In both their placement and content, the ads now appearing across the state mirror what the current race has been all about. The final campaign charges over the commercials also appear to illustrate why the candidates have invested so heavily in television and believe the ads are fundamental elements of their overall strategy.
"If you've got a candidate and be moved as fast as you could reasonably move him in a day, if he shook 1,000 hands a day, he wouldn't see as many people in a day by any stretch as would see him in a single commercial," said Royall.
In the Washington television market alone - once shunned by Virginia politicians because of its high costs - all but one of the six major statewide candidates has plunged into the fray for air time. Their purchases, according to figures compiled from the city's four major commercial stations, total $210,000 - more than most Virginia politicans would have imagined spending a decade ago on an entire state campaign.
This year the growing importance of television in Virginia and the Northern Virginia vote are dramatically illustrated by two incidents. In one Dalton's campaign plunked down $3,300 for a single 60-second spot on WTOP-TV's highly-rated "60 Minutes" news show.
In the other, owell and Dalton forces were pleading with executives of WJLA-TV to let them buy time (at the rate of $5,000 to $6,000 a minute, according to WJLA executives( during Monday night's football game. To the candidates' surprise, the station refused, telling the candidates that the game was too close to the election and saying whoever failed to get on the air during the game would cry foul.
To realize how important are the stakes in the Washington media market, Virginia politicans say one only has to compare the rates charged in the state's other top television markets. A 60-second ad during the "Today" show in Washington on WRC-TV costs a candidate $250, McDory Lipscomb, a Howell media consultant said yesterday. The same spot in Charlottesville costs $24 and $40 in either Norfold or Richmond.
Although the price is much cheaper for air time in other markets, the competition is just as intense as in Washington. When the Howell staff in southwest Virginia learned recently from a Bristol TV station's public records, that Dalton had purchased $2,800 worth of time there, a Howell worker shys they quietly purchased $3,000 worth of time under "another name" in an effort to keep the Dalton forces for realizing the extent of their purchases.
Both Howell and Dalton advisers have been buying cautiously in Washington but scrambling elsewhere for slots adjacent to news shows, and in the syndicated "Hee-Haw" country music and humor show and in the Lawrence Welk show. "Don't laugh," commanded one Dalton media advisters, "Hee-Haw" is one of the best watched shows in Virginia and Lawrence Welk is very big in Roanoke. As a matter of fact, I don't know of a television show I watch more regularly than 'Hee-Haw'."
Howell buyers have been placing ads in daytime soap operas, convinced that these programs offer Howell the best chance of converting uncommitted housewives. The soap opera ads, life much of Howell's Northern Virginia radio advertising, stress one basic theme: Howell's willingness to challenged the state's electric utilities over their rate increases.
In fact, one Howell radio commercial being used in Fairfax County urges would-be voters to "vote against Vepco (Virginia Electric and Power Co.) on Nov. 8; elect Henry Howell governor."
Just how important the candidates view such commercials is underscored by how much of an issue they have become in the final days of the campaign. Yesterday, as he campaigned in Norfolk, Dalton again complained about a Howell commercial featuring U.S. Rep. Peter W. Rodino (D-N.J.) condemning Watergate-style tactics Rodino says are being used against Howell. "That's a total falsehood," Dalton said.
Meanwhile Democrat Charles S. (Chuck) Robb, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, was reported furious over a television commercial being aired by his Republican opponent, Republican A. Joseph Canada. The ads say Robb once promised to support a tax increase. "They're wrong . . . false," complained Steven Fleming, a Robb spokesman.
In the race for attorney general, Republican J. Marshall Coleman called "a cheap shot" radio commercials aired in Richmond by his Democratic opponent, Edward E. Lane. In the commercials, Lane boasts that he is the only resident of "central Virginia" running for state office and local residents should remember that.
Coleman offered to run the ads in either Northern Virginia or Tidewater, but Lane never responded to the ads, a Coleman official said.
How the candidates have chose to get their names out there in front of television viewers is about as varied as the candidates themselves. Howell's ads stress his utility stands, his friendship with President Carter and Dalton's unwillingness to debate publicly with him.
Dalton's commercials portray him as a popular political leader, a friend of Gov. Mills E. Godwin and a conservative committed to continuing the state's political traditions. "Trust and credibility are the most important issues in this campaign," he says in one of the ads being played repeatedly.