Richard D. Obenshain is party man in the age of candidates who strive to blur party lines in their appeals to voters they believe are turned off by partisan politics.
He is seeking the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate from Virginia by telling prospective delegates to the nominating convention that his role in the recent ascendancy of statewide GOP candidates makes him the logical choice over two better known opponents, former governor Linwood Holton and former Navy secretary John Warner.
"I spend a good deal of my time talking about my role in putting together this coalition of Republicans, independents and conservative Democrats that is the stable combination for winning in Virginia," he said in an interview. "Having been in th middle of the creation of the stable majority, I am obviously the person to carry it through to a win in November. I talk about that a lot."
He contends that the warner glamor, amplified by his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, and the Holton popularity as a governor and campaigner should not lure Virginia Republicans from the conservative formula for success.
"Why abandon it for bright lights and charisma," he asked, "when the people of Virginia, the state that voted for Jerry Ford when the rest of the South was going off with the pied piper. The people of Virginia have demonstrated that they have a fundamental philosophy that they want their representatives to stand by."
Obenshain, 42, is a Richmond lawyer who grew up in the Republican stronghold of the western Virginia mountains. When he announced his candidacy in November, many experienced political figures in both parties rated him the favorite for the nomination, not because of his conservative philosophy but because of his close ties with party regulars throughout the state.
He was chosen state party chairman in 1972 over an opponent favored by Holton and later served as national GOP cochairman. His campaign organization is built around dedicated volunteers who chair city, county and congressional district party units. They are veterans in the game of delivering convention delegates.
They and their candidate are bringing party influence to bear most heavily in the Richmond area's third congressional district, which has given landslide margins to recent Republican candidates and as a result is allotted one-eighth of the conventions 3,081 delegate votes.
There is strong sentiment throughout the state against letting cities and counties pledge all of their votes to one candidate, forcing supporters of other candidates to vote at the state convention for the winner of a city or county caucus.
However, Obenshain forces succeeded Monday night in instructing the 105-vote Chesterfield County delegation to cast all its votes for Obenshain for three ballots in the June nominating session.
Warner and Holton narrowly averted an instructed delegation of 139 votes in Richmond Wednesday night when the city convention parliamentarian made a crucial ruling in their favor.
Obenshain plans to make another strong bid for an instructed delegation of 174 votes in Henrico County April 12. He already has won the first round in Henrico by getting the county committee, doubled in size by the addition of many of his supporters, to set up a county convention process that makes an instructed delegation more likely.
The effectiveness of the Republican can regulars is getting a better test in Northern Virginia, where Obenshain is less well known. Warner and Holton have the advantage of name identification and residency in the Washington suburbs, and Warner has waged an expensive mail and telephone campaign directed at recent GOP primary voters in the area.
However, in the contest for 371 Fairfax County delegate votes in eight caucuses Tuesday night, Obenshain supporters believe they stood off their opponents to an even, threeway split. No one is expected to have a clear picture of the Fairfax results until the county convention is held April 4.
Obenshain's image as a conservative party operative makes him the favorite opponent of most Democratic Party officials in the November election to replace retiring Republican Sen. William L. Scott.
"He is a Bill Scott with brains, a real monarchist," a moderate state Democratic official said of Obenshain in a remark that demonstrated the Democrats' disdain for both the incumbent and the former GOP chairman.
Democratic campaign managers have said in interviews that they would like to have a chance in a general election against Obenshain to paint him as the man who created Scott, a senator whose official style and conduct they consider to be an embarrassment to the state.
Obenshain said in answer to questions that he had nothing to do with the nomination of Scott, who was unopposed in the 1972 Republican convention, and doubts that attack on him will be effective in the coming campaign.
"You would get some smart aleck chitchat about it," he said of the Scott issue. "As with everyone else, there are disagreements about whether Sen. Scott should or should not have done certain things. However, his very conservative voting record is a solid defense which stands on its own. That is fundamentally what people were looking for when they elected him by 75,000 votes."
Obenshain views the Scott upset victory in 1972 over a respected moderate Democratic incumbent, William B. Spong, as an important indicator of conservative Republican strength in Virginia. "Scott, in his straightforward way, got across the fact that his philosophy was more conservative than Bill Spong's," he said. "That was what Virginians wanted."
With that outlook on the recent past, Obenshain is not likely to deny his conservatism this year, but he does bridle at suggestions that his ideological image is a handicap.
"There has been a strong undercurrent in this campaign that Dick Obenshain is just too conservative to get elected," he said. ". . . But in the last month there has been a shift . . .Both Warner and Holton have discovered that I am right in the mainstream of what has been winning Republican victories for a decade in Virginia.
Debate over issues has hardly dominated either party's Senate nomination process so far, but Obenshain has gained some attention by backing a major tax cut proposed by Republican members of Congress.
He argues that it will have the same salutary effect on the economy that the Kennedy tax cut of 1962 had then. He also argues that it is a "good, mainstream Republican issue" likely to attract votes from all blocs, including black Virginians.
This is Obenshain's third try for elective office. He was narrowly defeated in a three-way race for the third district House seat in 1964, and in 1969 was defeated by Andrew P. Miller in the state attorney general election. Miller is a leading contender for the Democratic Senate nomination, which is being sought by eight candidates.