Virginia Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis bowed out of the race to succeed Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. yesterday, leaving the state's already divided Democratic Party without any announced major candidate two weeks before its nominating convention.
"l will not allow my name to be placed in nomination nor will I accept a draft at the convention," said Davis, the clear favorite of party regulars, in a statement that climaxed two weeks of behind-the-scenes maneuvering within the party.
Davis' unequivocal withdrawal put pressure on several possible candidates--including Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews of Hampton, Del. Norman Sisisky of Petersburg, a candidate for Congress, and former Northern Virginia representative Joseph L. Fisher to announce their intentions before the convention in Roanoke June 4 and 5.
Davis' decision had been expected for several days as Democrats relayed concerns about the former Portsmouth mayor's ability to raise the $1.5 million needed to run against Rep. Paul S. Trible, the certain Republican nominee. Davis, the Democrats' top vote getter last year, is still raising money to pay off a $86,000 campaign debt.
With Davis out of the running, several Democrats worried that their party will fall back into its old habit of factional squabbling. "I think Davis' announcement removes a very strong candidate with proven electability," said state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder, the state's top black officeholder.
Davis, 60, reached his decision yesterday morning after meeting with top advisers in Portsmouth. The lieutenant governor, who had earlier said he would accept a draft, said that his present duties would make it difficult for him "to devote the 100 percent" effort required for a statewide campaign.
Davis' withdrawal brought a smile to Trible's face. "I'm thoroughly enjoying being unopposed, although I anticipate it will be shortlived," he said in Richmond yesterday. He said the disarray among his opponents "places the Democats at a disadvantage."
Davis, considered a possible candidate for the 1985 gubernatorial election, made clear he may seek higher office. "My interests have been and will continue to be in the exective branch of Virginia's government and if I am successful in my present duties, I would give every consideration to additional duties in the exeutive branch . . . ," he said.
Andrews, a 60-year-old attorney who made an unsuccessful bid for the party's Senate nomination in 1978, said, "I will seek advice and make a decision. Obviously, the clock is running."
Sisisky, a wealthy beer and soft drink distributor and a late entry into the field of possible candidates, said yesterday he will make a decision in a few days. "I take the position that it is a winnable race if you can put together the group to do it," Sisisky said. "I think I would stand a pretty good chance."
Fisher, state secretary of human resources under Gov. Charles S. Robb, is one of several potential candidates whose names have surfaced in the two weeks since Del. Owen B. Pickett, the Democrats' expected nominee, withdrew from the race. Pickett, a Virginia Beach legislator, had been chosen by party leaders last winter as the candidate least likely to offend the party's disparate constituencies. That strategy backfired after Wilder, angered by a series of rebuffs in the Democratic-controlled legislature, threatened to destroy any hope of party unity with an independent candidacy. Wilder withdrew that threat once Pickett quit.
Wilder, accused by conservatives of achieving virtual "veto power" over the Democratic nominating process, said this week he is still considering running for the Senate out of anger at the party leadership's decision to name a retired Army general to be the Democrats' keynote speaker in Roanoke.
Samuel V. Wilson, whose name was raised recently as a possible darkhorse Senate candidate, has accepted an invitation to address the Democrats. Wilder said he was baffled by the choice, particularly since Wilson, a former intelligence official unknown in Virginia political circles, was a vocal supporter of Vice President George Bush in the 1980 Republican presidential primaries.