Republican senatorial candidate John W. Warner had stopped a young couple walking through the Patrick Henry Shopping Center and was asking how they feel about taxes.
"Come on, John, we've got to go," urged a local campaign aide.
"Aw, gee, I'm having fun," Warner said as he allowed himself to be steered toward the car and the next stop on his scheduled.
Indeed, Warner appears to be having just that. While many Virginia political candidates seem to suffer the indignities of campaigning with discomfort, Warner has plunged into the exhausting round of factory tours, luncheons, interviews and local festivals with the zest of a child loose in a candy shop.
"You know, you've got to have fun in politics," the former Navy secretary said during a recent campaign swing through Southside Virginia. He'd started that morning with a visit to the Budd Tractor Trailer Co. in Martinsville, donning hard hat and protective glasses before striding through the vast hanger-like plant.
Grabbing hands with a firm grip, he asked each worker he approached "What would you like from your senator in Washington?" like a business-suited Santa Claus on a pre-christmas journey. More often than not - sometimes with a little prompting from Warner - the workers would reply, "Do something about taxes."
in some ways, Warner's campaign style resembles that of the Republicans' anathema. Democrat Henry E. Howell. Both relish unscheduled stops, the hoopla aspect of a campaign, and are prone to spontaneous reactions that give the campaign managers back at headquarters gray hairs.
BUt where Howell, and former Republican Gov. Linwood Holton, who was also known to enjoy campaigning, had a populist touch, Warner seems more the benovelent baron. "I think he wants to be president," said a man who used to work for him, "But even more than that he would like to be (thought of as) a country squire."
Campaign aides say Warner's personal style, his outgoing and buoyant spirit, have been important to his workers, helping them put behind their sorrow at the death of the party's initial nominee, Richard Obenshain, who was killed Aug. 2 in a plane crash.
Furthermore, they say his aggressiveness makes for a marked contrast with Democart Andrew P. Miller, who in the words of one top GOP official had the reputation of being "someting of a cold fish" when he was Virginia attorney general.
You've got to listen to these people as much as you can," Warner said."I learn a great deal, and I think people appreciate it if you take the time to listen."
While many Virginia politicians give an impression of such formality that one could assume they wear button-down shirts and neckties to bed, Warner is more relaxed. He plops down on the lawn for an impromptu session with reporters, does a few kneebends during a dawn visit to greet workers at the gates to a Newport News shipyard, or tells stroies embellished with accents and gestures.
He seems to delight in the gewgaws of campaigns, from the "Warner's Tops" bottle caps and the red-white-and-blue "Warners" fingernail files put out by Martinsville Republicans to the standard buttons and bumper stickers. "Someone told me if I'd had 300 more sailor hats I would have won at the convention," he joked about his narrow loss to Obenshain in Richmond.
After leaving the Patrick Henry Shopping Center on his way to a doctor's home for a reception, Warner spotted a group of four black men standing outside the two-car Bannister Cab Co. He made his driver stop the car and bounded out to greet the startled foursome.
"I'm John Warner, running for Senate how are you doing?" he said. "What's on your mind?Say," he said to a man in overalls, "I bet you've worked all your life. So have I. What do you think of people who won't work?"
"Not much," said the man.
After leaving a fistful of campaign brochures with the men, Warner trotted across the street to a hamburger stand inhabited by teen-agers and a penball machine. He found a few registered voters, gave a soul handshake to the young proprieter, left more brochures and went on to a Black Muslim food store whose sign bragged "We Sell Only Kosher Meats."
"These are communicators," Warner explained later. "I bet within 24 hours those cab drivers will have told 200 people I was here."
According to Warner, his enthusiastic style of meeting and greeting is nothing new. "When I was secretary of the Navy I drove the admirals crazy." he said, "When I went to visit a ship I liked to go all over it and talk to sailors. Finally they gave up and said, 'If he wants to get all greasy let him do it.'"