Though he was quick to claim some of the credit last week for the gradual easing of area gasoline lines, Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton has been seriously wounded politically by the 1979 fuel crisis.
That's the consensus of Northern Virginia politicians of both parties who say the Republican governor was slow to recognize the problem and slower to act. And while no one directly blames Dalton for the lines that plagued the area for a month, many contend his inaction aggravated an already bad situation.
"The governor totally misunderstood how serious the situation was here," says Democratic State Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault of Fairfax, dean of the area's legislative delegation. "He closed his mind to the problem and I don't think he's coming out looking very good."
In less strong language, Del Vincent Callahan, a Fairfax Republican, sounds a similar theme:
"I think the governor got some bum advice," is how Callahan puts it. "It took him a while to realize what was ahppening here."
Dalton's aides argue their man took the necessary steps to aid Northern Virginia - virtually the only part of the state with gas lines - as soon as the dimensions of the problem became clear.
But even they concede that in terms of politics - where perceptions are at least as important as realities - Dalton has come out looking less dynamic than D.C.'s Mayor Marion Barry or Maryland's Gov. Harry Hughes or Democratic Rep. Herbert E. Harris, a possible Dalton Senate opponent in 1982.
Another political perception: Many Northern Virginians, already alienated from the mainstream of Virginia life and politics, felt shortchanged again during the gasoline crisis. That, too, could damage the political future of Dalton, who rolled up a solid 55 percent of the Northern Virginia vote when he was elected governor in 1977.
"A lot of people here think that because John Dalton comes from Southwest Virginia, he is myopic when it comes to things north of the Rappahanock," says an area Republican strategist with strong ties to the state house. "It's probably an unfair assessment but that is the perception and this gas situation has made it worse."
The low point for Dalton came two weeks ago when lines were at their peak. While Maryland and D.C. published lists of gasoline stations that agreed to open on nights or weekends in return for emergency gasoline supplies, Virginia had none.
Later in the week, the state energy office released figures showing it had allocated a disproportionate share of its emergency gasoline to Richmond and rural areas.
Dalton's press secretary, Paul G. Edwards, says Dalton was as upset as anyone by those figures and took immediate steps to ensure more gasoline to the Washington suburbs. And by the weekend, State Energy Coordinator George Jones announced Northern Virginia would get at least four million gallons of "set-aside" gas this month - more than twice what it got in June.
But many Northern Virginia officials here say that action came too late. They generally fault Dalton on three counts:
Hesitating too long in advocating an odd-even rationing system, which wasn't put into effect until June 21.
Failing to increase the state's monthly emergency gasoline supply from three percent to five percent of total available gas until July. Such a step would have given officials more gasoline that they could have diverted to Northern Virginia.
Failing to see that Northern Virginia got its fair share of the May and June emergency supply.
Even more infuriating to some was the attitude of state officials - including Dalton - on why Northern Virginia was the only area in Virginia with gasoline lines. The officials said that people in the Washington suburbs somehow were more panicky and less conservation-minded than their calm, unflappable neighbors to the south.
"The governor told me that people up here were overreacting and panicking," says Callahan. "I assured him that when I had to get up at the crack of dawn and wait two hours for gas so that I could drive to the Republican convention, I wasn't panicking."
Another complaint is that Dalton and his staff did not consult enough with Northern Virginia Republican leaders during the crisis. "I have felt...and some of the rest of us felt somewhat remote from the decision-making process," says Republican State Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell of Alexandria.
One Republican who had no trouble getting his message across was GOP Del. Arthur R. Giesen of Staunton. But Giesen says he warned the governor that "he would be politically hurt in other parts of the state if he took gas away from them to give to Northern Virginia."
An emerging theme among Republicans both here and in Richmond is that Dalton's energy office let him down. The troubled office was merged with the office of emergency services 16 months ago after the state's energy director was fired for mismanagement. The new office, however, lacked both the manpower and the expertise to cope with the crisis, according to some. Officials at the office have admitted they didn't even know what percentage of the state's gasoline retailers were located in Northern Virginia or what share of gas they were supposed to get.
"You can say John Dalton was slow on the draw, but the fault has to fall largely on the energy office for not doing the advanced planning that was needed," says Fairfax Republican Del. Martin H. Perper.
Dalton aide Edwards denies plans are afoot to replace energy chief Jones, but concedes some sort of shakeup - perhaps again making energy a separate agency - is under consideration.
Edwards and longtime Dalton adviser William A. Royall both contend the governor's cautious approach to the crisis was the right one - even if it grabbed fewer headlines than Maryland Gov. Hughes' ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against the federal Department of Energy or Congressman Harris's attacks on Big Oil.
"Harris has been quick to showboat this issue while John Dalton isn't about to pop off with an easy answer," says Royall. Adds Edwards: "Herb Harris is a media maniac."
All of which amuses Harris.
"John Dalton and his staff still show a remarkable misconception of this problem," he says. "It's simply a harkening back on their part to the tradition that Northern Virginia is a place they don't understand and people are a little strange here." CAPTION: Picture, JOHN N. DALTON..."some bum advice"