Virginia Republican Senate candidate John W. Warner and his key advisers, operating on the belief that his race against Democrat Andrew P. Miller is now a close one, have adopted a calculated, home-stretch strategy of ignoring Miller's sudden attacks on Warner's integrity and on incumbent Sen. William L. Scott.
Having concluded that Warner has narrowed the lead conceded to Miller when the race began two months ago, the GOP strategists have decided to let Miller take the risk of appearing to run a negative campaign while their candidate hammers away at tax, defense and government spending issues.
Coinciding with the Republican's final campaigning will be a media campaign that uses Gov. John N. Dalton and former governors Mills E. Godwin and Linwood Holton to enhance Warner's appeal to regionally targeted voter blocs.
Between campaign appearances by both candidates at Northern Virginia churches and synagogues yesterday, Warner said he would ignore the Miller attacks.
"I'm going to continue, just as I have from the beginning, to direct my campaign efforts toward the issues," Warner said. He added that even if GOP polls show that Miller's charges are hurting the Warner candidacy he still will not vary his strategy.
Miller, usually a cautious campaigner, suddenly took the offensive last week in an effort to capitalize on apparent conflicts between several Warner campaign statements - conflicts that Miller said amount to "significant discrepancies" and threaten the tradition of "integrity" in Virginia politics.
However, when Miller pursued the integrity theme at a joint appearance by the candidates before the Virginia Jaycee convention in Staunton on Saturday, the crowd of 450 responded warmly to Warner's suggestion that his opponent was taking a "low road" while he would stay on the "high road" in his campaign.
"I hope he gives that speech over and over again," a Warner aide said of the Miller assault as he left the Jaycee convention. Another campaign official said later that day, "We know the appearance of negative campaigning by Miller helps us."
Warner's strategists concede that day-by-day monitoring of voter attitudes recorded sharp slumps by the Republican in the wake of news stories about apparent conflicts in some of his earlier campaign statements.
The apparent conflicts arose from Warner's statements about racial strife in the Navy while he was Navy secretary, a dispute over whether or not he sought state AFL-CIO endorsement, another dispute over whether or not political influence secured his appointment as undersecretary of the Navy and his claim to have voted for Independent Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. in 1970 even though he contributed $1,000 to Byrd's Republican opponent.
Despite adverse voter reaction to stories about these campaign incidents, the Warner strategists perceive an irony in their opinion monitoring: Miller's efforts to capitalize on the apparent conflicts generates a sympathetic reaction for Warner. "It's just a matter of recognizing that voters don't like negative campaigning," one said. "It's something we've been able to measure."
In addition to ignoring Miller's efforts to create an integrity issue, Warner demonstrated last weekend that he will continue to sidestep Miller criticisms of Scott, Virginia's controversial Republican Senate incumbent. Scott is retiring after one term, opening up the Senate seat being sought by Miller and Warner.
"The Scott thing to me is just not an issue in the campaign," Warner said yesterday. "It is just wasted rhetoric."
However, Warner continues to keep a healthy distance between himself and Scott. "I don't know that you could say that he (Scott) has formally endorsed me," Warner said in an interview. "We've had such limited discussion, but I guess I have no reason to believe he will vote against me."