Virginia Republican Paul S. Trible, in his strongest attack of this year's U.S. Senate race, today lambasted his Democratic opponent, Richard J. Davis, as a foe of the death penalty who would align himself with the "Ted Kennedys of the Senate" to block toughter anticrime laws.
Proclaiming his support for capital punishment, the 35-year-old, Newport News congressman also pledged to work to broaden the federal death penalty to permit the execution of spies, traitors, saboteurs and murderers convicted in federal courts.
Trible's speech, delivered before a conservative business audience that included former governor Mills E. Godwin, clearly was aimed at capitalizing on public support for the state's Aug. 10 execution of Frank Coppola, a 38-year-old ex-policeman convicted in the brutal murder of a Newport News housewife.
Trible, a former state and federal prosecutor, said his campaigning shows that the topic "is very much on people's minds" and that most Virginians approve of Coppola's execution, the first in Virginia in 20 years.
"In cities and counties across Virginia and this nation, people like Frank Coppola decide who shall live and who shall die," Trible said. "These people ruthlessly end marriages, leave children parentless, and inflict sorrow and anguish on thousands of innocent people. This must stop . . . . I support capital punishment because I believe innocent men, women and children have a right to live."
Davis has said he is opposed to the death penalty on moral grounds, but would uphold the law if he were governor. A spokesman for Davis said today that he had no interest in trading barbs with Trible over the issue, adding that Davis' position on the death penalty "is well-known."
"We don't have to respond to every potshot that Trible makes," said campaign spokesman Will Marshall. "Lt. Gov. Davis had an excellent record in combating crime as mayor of Portsmouth. The crime rate fell significantly during his tenure."
Trible's speech represented the first time in the campaign that he has sought to draw a sharp distinction between himself and Davis on any major issue. Trible said that, as a senator, he could work for the passage of legislation he has cosponsored in the House that would permit the executions of persons found guilty in federal court of first degree murder, treason, espionage, or sabotage.
A series of Supreme Court cases has all but wiped out the death penalty for federal crimes and there has not been a federal execution since 1967, according to several constitutional experts interviewed today. Moreover, because murder, the most common capital crime, usually is prosecuted in state courts, the applicability of a proposed statute such as Trible's would be narrow, these experts said.
Trible said that the death penalty and his proposal were important issues in the Senate race. "Federal law is important because it really sets an example that is often followed by the states," he said.
Separately, the Davis camp countered today in the battle for the state's "coalitionists," the influential bloc of independent conservatives who have moved back and forth between the two parties in recent elections. The Trible camp recently had announced the formation of a "Virginians for Trible" committee headed by two of the state's leading coalitionists, Godwin and former state legislator W. Roy Smith.
Today, Davis' campaign headquarters announced the formation of a "Virginians for Davis" committee that included 59 conservatives, some of them previous supporters of Republicans J. Marshall Coleman, Gov. John N. Dalton and Sen. John W. Warner.
The Davis committee is headed by Virginia Beach businessman Sydney Y. Kellam, a close associate of Independent Sen. Harry F. Byrd, Jr. It includes Vincent P. Thomas, the Republican mayor of Norfolk, Myron P. Erkiletian, a Northern Virginia builder, John H. Ariail, Jr., a former Coleman supporter from Fairfax County, and John S. Battle, the son of former governor William Battle.
Earlier today, Godwin said that he expects Trible to receive more than 75 percent of the coalitionist's support. Davis' spokesman, Marshall, said the list "shows that independents are at least evenly divided in this race, if not leaning toward Dick Davis."