In a Tidewater motel room two weeks ago, Democratic state Sen. Hunter Andrews sat down with Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb expecting to get the governor's enthusiastic blessing for Andrews' plans to announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate.
What the proud 60-year-old Senate majority leader got instead was a shock. Rather than eagerly encouraging him to enter the race, Robb ticked off in blunt terms problems Andrews would face in garnering support--his abrupt manner, his quick temper and a public perception that he was, as Robb put it, "an arrogant SOB."
"Hunter was taken aback," says a close friend who talked to Andrews shortly after the meeting. "He was really hurt."
This week, however, it was Robb who received the hurtful news. With the withdrawal of Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis from the race last week, many party leaders--including the governor--had turned to Andrews as the only strong Democrat who could rescue the party from a divisive search for a Sen- News Analysis News Analysis ate candidate to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr.
Early Monday morning, Andrews called Robb and said he would not run. "Robb was stunned," says his press spokesman, George Stoddart. Attempting to draft a simple statement of regret, the governor's mind wandered and his hands were shaking, Stoddart said.
Andrews' abrupt exit illustrated the frustrations Robb has repeatedly faced in trying to exercise his role as party leader during a candidate selection process that many Democrats now acknowledge is a fiasco. While the extent to which Robb should be blamed remains in dispute, even friends of the governor say the current image of a party in disarray has taken the luster off last fall's electoral triumph and cost the governor valuable political capital.
"I don't think there's any question that as far as public perception is concerned, there's been some damage to the governor and some feeling that he could have done things that he should have done," says lobbyist Bill Thomas, a former party chairman and one of Robb's closest advisers.
"The public perceives there's a void out there and they kind of look to Chuck and say, 'He's the party leader. He should have gotten this sorted out.' "
That was not the way it was supposed to be. In the wake of last fall's party sweep of statewide offices, many Democrats were once hopeful that their popular new governor would usher in a golden era of Democratic dominance in Virginia--a dominance that would be solidified in November with the election of their first senator since Byrd turned independent 12 years ago.
Yet, Robb's efforts to play party steward have backfired, leaving the party with a field of regional "favorite sons" with barely a week to go before the party's nominating convention in Roanoke.
Meanwhile, the expected Republican nominee, U.S. Rep. Paul S. Trible of Newport News, has been actively raising money--a total of $247,088, according to his most recent campaign finance report--and building up a statewide organization.
"It's going to be hard for any Democratic candidate at this point to put together the kind of organization and raise enough money that is needed for a statewide race," says Del. Frank Slayton (D-South Boston), who is still bitter over Robb's failure to stand by fallen candidate Owen B. Pickett (D-Virginia Beach), whom Robb had earlier supported.
"The one beneficial effect of all this is to liven up the convention," he says. "But after the convention, the real request is what's it going to be worth?"
While few Democrats are willing to criticize the governor publicly, many privately grumble that his forays into the Byzantine world of party politics have been marked by miscalculations that have been exacerbated by an aloof and overcautious style.
The most recent example involved Robb's motel meeting with Andrews and his earlier private talks with Davis. In the minds of the two contenders' closest advisers, the men might have jumped in if the governor had encouraged them to do so, regardless of the fund-raising problems they cited as their reason for staying out. Instead, Robb acknowledges he dispassionately reviewed with them the relative strengths and weaknesses of their candidacies.
"I have tried with everyone to suggest what I thought were the pluses and the minuses," he said in an interview today. "The cold hard facts aren't always that appealing . . . but the bottom line is that if they ran and were nominated, they would have had my full support.
"I have encouraged them to run," he said. "What I haven't done is painted a rosier picture than actually existed."
It isn't the first time Robb has been criticized for attempting to influence the choice of a Senate nominee. In early February, he agreed to a closed-door selection process set up by four top Democratic contenders who hoped to avoid a costly and divisive battle for the nomination.
With Robb's blessing, the product of that process was Pickett, a bland, little-known state legislator from Virginia Beach, whose candidacy quickly ran into trouble from black Richmond state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder, who threatened to run for the Senate as an independent. To head off the Wilder candidacy, which would have badly divided the party, Robb pressured Pickett to withdraw from the race. In doing that he alienated Pickett's supporters as well as conservatives who resented the idea that Robb had yielded to a liberal black.
In the three weeks since then, Robb and other party leaders have been unable to find a strong new candidate. Robb acknowledged his exasperation today.
"What would you do?" he asks. "The obvious frustation is that there is not an easy answer . . . I have asked myself if there's anything I could have done that would have made life easier for me and the answer is no."
"Don't try to assess the ball game until the ball game is over," he says. "I'm quite confident that the process is still working."