An extraordinary group of aging conservative [WORD ILLEGIBLE] gathered here yesterday to county charge by their old ally, former governor Mills E. Godwin, that Democratic Senate candidate Andrew P. Miller no longer represents what is best of Virginia.
"They are trying to hoodwink the people of Virginia into believing they have the Mr. Conservative," said former Rep. Watkins M. Abbitt, 70, in a reference to Republican John W. Warner, Miller opponent in Tuesday's elections.
"The big lie is trying to make him (Miller) out as a flaming liberal or something that was unholy or not of Virginia . . . ," Abbitt, who is said to influence thousands of votes in Southside Virginia, said, "They told us in the old days if you told a big lie and keep it going, sooner or later, as Hitler said, they'll believe it. And that's what they're trying to do to Andy Miller."
The group on the platform at the "Virginians for Miller" breakfast in a restaurant was, according to one longtime poltical observer, "one of the most amazing sights in the last 25 years." Aside from Abbitt, there was former governor Colgate W. Darden, a venerable 81, and Sidney S. Kellam, 75, who for years was the late Sen. Harry F. Byrd's man in Tidewater. Rep. David Satterfield, an ultra-conservative Democrat who rarely participates in state party affairs, sat next to Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, the relatively young newcomer considered by many to be the rising hope of the party.
The gathering was replete with ironies. Many of those present had branded Miller's late father, Col. Francis Pickens Miller, with the same label - flaming liberal - they sought yesterday to erase from the public image of his son. Col. Miller ran for governor in 1949 against John S. Battle - whose son chaired the group sponsoring yesterday's event.
Meanwhile, Warner kept up his appeal to conservative voters by campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley and piedmont counties of the 7th Congressional District with Thomas T. Byrd, Winchester newspaper manager and son of conservative Independent Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr.
The Byrds remain potent symbols of a conservative political organization established by the late governor and senator Harry F. Byrd Sr, who dominated Virginia politics for more than 40 years. His grandson, Thomas Byrd, playing his first statewide political role, is cochairman of Virginians for Warner, the organization that is wooing conservative independents and Democrats for the Republican.
As he met Warner at the Winchester airport yesterday, young Byrd told reporters, "I feel that John Warner would be far more compatible with my father in the U.S. Senate and vote more conservatively on the issues with my father."
This is essentially the message that Godwin, the last of the Byrd organization governors, have been taking to Virginia voters in radio ads being broadcast in many areas of the state.
In Richmond, however, the Miller speakers were scornful of Warner and indignant at Godwin. Ranging from Kellam's humor to Abbitt's fire and Darden's graceful, rueful prose, the speakers had the crowd spellbound.
"Dave Satterfield heads up the conservative coalition of the House of Representatives in Washington," said Abbitt. "Do you think he would be here if Andy Miller was flaming liberal? I don't yield to anyone my credentials as a conservative - do you think I would be here if I thought Andy Miller was going to sell the people of Virginia down the river?"
"Pour it on, Wat!" yelled someone in the audience.
Keilam spoke of Warner's appearing at the State AFL-CIO convention, hosting a breadfast for delegates, and then later saying he never sought the labor group's endorsement - one of the examples of Warner's "lack of credibility" Miller supporters mention frequently.
"What was he doing there?" Kellam said, "Selling popcorn?"
Darden, who has also been a congressman and the president of the University of Virginia, is one of the stat's most respected elder statesmen. He is ravered by liberal as well as conservatives, and when he spoke yesterday it was in almost a conversational tone, his gently shaking voice filled with quiet indignation.
Darden said he was "saddened" by Godwin's recent attack on Miller as a man who put "party above principle." Godwin attempted to associate Miller with well-known Democratic liberals such as George McGovern and Henry E.HO well, as well as President Jimmy Carter although Miller has never been close to any of them.
"I think he (Godwin) ought to be remined of the fact that the success of these last four years came from a Democratic General Assembly," Darden said. "There wasn't a time in his service when he couldn't have been stopped dead in his tracks if the Democratic majority in the House of Delegates and the Senate had not been willing to stand with him in the interests of the state. To say that the nominee of our party places party above principle is just inaccurate."
Godwin was a Democrat until 1973, when he became a Republican and later won his second term as governor. "I rather think that he's carried away with the overlordship of his new party that leads him into these discrepancies," Darden said.
Then, with a chuckle, Darden referred to Godwin's move from the hamlet of Chuckatuck to a suburban Suffolf development.
"I believe I've got the answer to what really happened to Mills," he said, "He had better judgment when he was a Chuckatucker. But Mills moved over to the county and he's not been the same since."
"I wish I could see Mills' face when he hears that," said one listener.
Miller and his staff were bouyed yesterday by the success of the breakfast, and expected the intensity of the conservatives' cry to bring in the votes they need to overcome Warner's strong appeal to conservatives.
"I wish your father could have been here" a reporter said to Miller later.
"I think he was," Miller said with a broad smile, "I think he was."