Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, next year's likely Republican gubernatorial nominee, won the endorsement of several wealthy area businessmen today in an effort to head off an incipient stop-Coleman campaign by disgruntled GOP conservatives.
Millionaire investor Lawrence Lewis, Jr. and stockbroker Henry L. Valentine, both members of a loosely knit coalition of businessmen who previously expressed doubt about Coleman's conservative credentials, announced they have formed a financial committee to raise funds for the 38-year-old attorney general.
The 11-member committee also includes such card-carrying Richmond conservatives as business executive Bruce C. Gottwald, consultant Fitzgerald Bemiss and stockbroker Walter Craigie -- all members of the so-called "Main Street Crowd" who have played major fund-raising roles in recent Republican campaigns.
"It's an impressive group of men and it tells me that Marshall Coleman will have some of the financial strength he needs to run a successful campaign next year," said Anson Franklin, Coleman's top political aide.
The announcement comes as a number of conservative independents -- key factors in the GOP's dominance of Virginia politics during the past decade -- are still weighing whether to challenge Coleman either by opposing his nomination or by running an independent candidate against Coleman and his likely Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb.
For Coleman, who lacks Robb's personal wealth, support from the financiers who have funded the past GOP races is crucial. Some political experts here have estimated that he will have to spend $2 million in his race for the $60,000-a-year governor's job.
Robb, a McLean lawyer and the son-in-law of the late president Lyndon Johnson, was able three years ago to finance much of his race for lieutenant governor with his own money. A conservative Democrat, Robb has been making his own overtures to the state's influential business community.
One GOP strategist said today Coleman's backers were attempting to signal other conservatives that it was time to concede the inevitable and accede to Coleman's nomination. If they don't, they risk plunging the party into a blood bath that could result in Robb's election. But others said that despite the impressive list of names, the new panel did not prove that conservative opposition to Coleman was at an end.
"It's a very good sign, but you have to notice that most of the men on that list are solid Republicans, not independents," said a Republican leader with close ties to conservative colation leaders. "There's still a lot of concern out there about Marshall."
Some conservatives are expected to support a move at this Saturday's state GOP Central Committee meeting to select next year's nominees by a voter primary instead of by the party's traditional convention. They believe a primary might give a well-financed conservative an outside chance of beating Coleman, who is believed to have the nomination sewed up.
Some of those conservatives, who are said to include former governor Mills E. Godwin, have in recent weeks encouraged state Sen. Herbert Bateman of Newport News to oppose Coleman. Bateman has said he would make a decision by this weekend. Godwin said he has talked to Bateman but has remained neutral. Some Coleman supporters are confident Bateman will opt for an attempt at the leiutenant governor's nomination rather than take on their candidate.
Supporters of Warrenton lawyer Guy O. Farley, a born-again ally of the state's Moral Majority movement and a likely lieutenant governor candidate, are also expected to back a primary, where they believe their man would have a better chance of winning.
Since Virginians do not register by party, a primary would be open to Democrats and independents, as well as GOP regulars who are likely to dominate a convention.