One of the candidates is noted for his memory. The other misses few opportunities to poke fun at his own homely face. Both want to be Virginia's next attorney general and neither is shy about using parlor tricks or standup comedy to get there.
"The main issue is electability," says Del. Gerald Baliles (d-richmond), who has wowed audiences with his ability to recall the names and faces of dozens of people met minutes earlier in a receiving line.
"If tricks were the criteria for holding office, I'd saw a lady in half," counters Del. Erwin (Shad) Solomon (D-Bath), the other candidate for the Democratic nomination, who is known for his pear-shaped figure, his rumpled wardrobe and a campaign slogan that offers voters "not just another pretty face."
This weekend Baliles and Solomon will get a crucial, and possibly final, indication of how well their campaigns have been received by party regulars. At mass meetings across the state, delegates will be elected to next month's Democratic state convention where candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general will be nominated. A strong showing by either candidate this weekend could render that Virginia Beach conventtion a mere formality.
The campaign for attorney general has focused more on the sytle of the two Democratic legislators than any major difference between them on issues. A debate over when Baliles first endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment may have hurt him in Northern Virginia, but the general public seems to have reacted to the race with all the emotion of a quick yawn.
Last week a Richmond newspaper surveyed 380 people and found only two who could name any candidate in the attorney general's race. And no one mentioned the only Republican candidate, Wyatt Durrette, a former state delegate from Fairfax County.
But if the public has not followed this campaign with much interest, Democratic Party regulars, who have watched Republicans dominate statewide races in Virginia during the last decade, are anxious over this nomination.
"The people I talk to are hungry for success," says Baliles, a 40-year-old Richmond lawyer who served as an assistant state attorney general for eight years before being elected to the General Assembly in 1975. Baliles has presented himself to the party as a clean-cut, Clark Kent-type candidate who is ans intentionally colorless as his dark-gray suits.
Solomon, a 60-year-old Lawyer, and a former schoolteacher and football coach, refers to Baliles as a "Republican clone" and argues, "We're not going to get anywhere imitating Republicans." Politically moderate, Solomon's personal style has been compared to vaudeville.
"Shad is just a natural-born performer," says Del. Clint Miller, a Shenandoah Valley Republican, who cohosted a short-lived radio show last year with Solomon that was equal parts politics and wry patter. "Once you see him you can never forget him."
Solomon, who represents mountainous Bath County, 145 miles southwest of Washington, is famous for his malapropisms, some of them unintentional. At a legislative hearing on reducing the state's food tax earlier this year, Solomon noted that certain types of farm equipment already are exempted and announced: "If you can do it for farmers, why not for humans?"
It is that colorful style, combined with a respected record as a legislator and county prosecutor that endears Solomon to his supporters. But other Democrats worry that in Virginia, which has a reputation for electing more staid politicians to statewide offices, Solomon's nomination could cost the Democrats the election in the fall.
"He's exactly the kind of candidate who would lose to Wyatt Durrette by 25 points," argues Darrel Martin, the state coordinator for Baliles' campaign. "One thing that's important to Virginians is an image of stability and conservatism."
"That's the conventional wisdom, but an awful lot of conventional wisdom when tested proves to be not so," says Del. Elise Heinz (D-Arlington/Alexandria) who supports Solomon, and criticizes Baliles for being "entirely too reluctant to take a position on anything."
Like Solomon, Baliles has a reputation in the General Assembly as hard working and effective. He also earned enough respect while serving as an assistant attorney general to merit a commendation from former Republican governor Mills E. Godwin, who praised his "good taste and manners characteristic of Virginia gentlemen."
But Baliles has come under attack during the last few months, particularly in Northern Virginia, for not supporting the Equal Rights Amendment when it needed support the most. "If Baliles was a supporter of the ERA, it was one of the best-kept secrets of the decade," says Heinz.
"That's just not fair and not true," says Pam Miles, the Northern Virginia coordinator for the Baliles campaign. "We have had to battle that allegation from the very beginning. We've had an uphill struggle."
To counter that accusation, Baliles has enlisted the support of Fairfax Democratic Del. Dorothy McDiarmid, who has been among this area's most ardent supporters of Era. "Jerry has been splendid on all of the women's bills," says McDiarmid.