When Maxine Williams talks about Ira M. Lechner, she speaks with a reverence that some Democrats used to reserve for the late Adlai Stevenson.
"He's my prince of politics," says Williams, 52, of Falls Church who has worked in three Lechner campaigns in the past five years. "There are just so many things I like about Ira. He's brilliant, he's a wonderful speaker and he's right on all the issues."
And he has been a loser, something that Williams hopes to help the 48-year-old Washington labor lawyer and former state delegate from Arlington reverse in Tuesday's 10th Congressional District Democratic primary in Northern Virginia. Lechner, after losing back-to-back bids for Virginia lieutenant governor, is attempting a political comeback.
He is viewed by many as the front-runner in the state's only congressional primary -- a race that will determine who will face incumbent Republican Rep. Frank Wolf in November. Lechner's two opponents, Rose Z. Thorman of Arlington and Edward D. (Ted) McLaughlin of McLean, are regarded by most party workers as unknowns with little campaign money or grass-roots support.
Lechner had tended to play down his primary opposition -- the three have had few joint appearances -- and has concentrated his efforts on raising money for his expected fall campaign and attempting to heal political wounds left from his past campaigns. In his public appearances, Lechner focuses on Wolf, attacking the incumbent's support of the Reagan administration's budget cuts and appealing to the 40 percent of the district's electorate--a number greater than any other congressional district's--who are active or retired federal employes.
While Lechner is the clear front-runner Tuesday, many party workers say his political future will hinge on his ability to moderate his brash style and liberal reputation in a district where Republicans have made substantial gains.
"Ira is the type of person who tends to develop strong friends and strong enemies," said Jack Hurt, a Fairfax County party worker.
"Many of us were hoping Joe Fisher would run again," said Sue Hoffman, a Fairfax party official, who like many Democrats was disappointed when the former Democratic representative, whom Wolf defeated in 1980, accepted a job in the cabinet of Gov. Charles S. Robb. Fisher now is seeking the party's Senate nomination.
"A lot of people said: 'Well, this is Ira's year, he's worked hard, he can match Frank Wolf blow for blow, let him go for it,' " said Hoffman, who managed Jimmy Carter's 1980 campaign in Northern Virginia. "But there are lots of people waiting in the wings."
"If Ira loses it would be pretty hard for him to go on from there," said Mary Cahill of Reston, one of his staunchest supporters and chairman of the 10th District Democratic Committee.
Lechner minimizes his two defeats for the lieutenant governorship, saying he has always carried the 10th District, which encompasses Falls Church, Fairfax City, Arlington and Loudoun counties and the northern half of Fairfax County. "I don't think anybody cares whether or not this is Ira Lechner's last hurrah," he said. "The object is to beat the New Right and Frank Wolf."
Some party strategists say Lechner's reputation as a liberal--his support of the rights of tenants and women and organized labor and his opposition to increased defense spending and Reaganomics--could hurt him in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, which gave Wolf his victory over Fisher.
"I don't think Ira is really more liberal than Joe Fisher was; it's just that he's very outspoken and asserts himself a bit more," said Betty Tatum, a member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. "In certain parts of Loudoun that could be a drawback. So could his support from organized labor."
Fairfax state Sen. Adelard (Abe) L. Brault, Northern Virginia's senior legislator, is more blunt. "Carrying a torch for liberal causes doesn't move very fast or very far in Northern Virginia," said Brault, who is supporting Thorman.
"Ira Lechner and Henry Howell are two peas in a pod," said Brault, referring to the Norfolk labor lawyer who lost three bids for governor. "I don't think he Lechner will ever be elected to any important office."
Lechner and his supporters bristle at such statements.
"I would like to ask these people, what is it I'm too liberal on?" Lechner asks. "Is it that I support Social Security or oppose Reaganomics? Joe Fisher didn't get beaten because he was perceived as a liberal, but because he was tied to Jimmy Carter and caught in a [GOP] sweep."
There are ways, says Arlington Democratic Del. Warren Stambaugh "to answer that liberal thing. If Ira's got any sense he'll say, 'That's right, I represent working men and women and Frank Wolf represents big business and the baby food industry,' " referring to Wolf's former lobbying clients.
One of Lechner's biggest problems will be overcoming the antipathy of some party regulars, particularly those in Fairfax, the district's most populous jurisdiction.
"Ira has got to bring back the people like Dottie Schick, Emilie Miller and Jack Hurt, whom he knocked off the state central committee last year when they didn't support him for lieutenant governor," said Arlington Sheriff James Gondles. "There's a lot of bitterness about that."
Lechner, who has formed a "unity committee" composed of 300 party workers, says he thinks "the fences are pretty well mended." However, the names of Fairfax party Chairman Schick, former chairman Miller, and Hurt, all influential Fairfax Democrats, are conspicuously absent. All three say they are not taking sides in the primary.
"Ira called me and tried to get me on his committee, and I told him he had a lot of nerve," said Miller, who has ties to Gov. Robb. "I'll support the nominee of the party because I've got to practice what I preach, and to me, any Democrat is better than a Republican." Schick says she and Lechner have smoothed over their differences, but as party chairman, she says she must remain neutral. Hurt says he may vote for Thorman.
Lechner says his biggest obstacle is not binding party wounds but raising money. Lechner says he currently has about 1,000 volunteers and has raised about $65,000, much of it from union political action committees. Wolf, who as challenger in 1980 received more corporate special-interest money than most incumbents, has raised about $125,000.
"Ira is working very hard to raise money and come across as a moderate," said Hoffman. "He's one of the single best campaigners I've encountered. There's a feeling that he can do Frank Wolf a great deal of damage."