When he first ran for Congress six years ago, Frank R. Wolf had about 10 campaign workers, five of whom were his wife and children. He was so anxious to meet voters that even after a full day of campaigning he sometimes stopped at grocery stores before heading home, just to shake a few more hands. His campaign kickoff, held in a friend's living room, attracted 25 people.
Last week Wolf, now a freshman Republican congressman running hard for reelection, swept into the cavernous community room at Arlington's George Mason University Law School, and pushed through the crowd like a football hero after the big game. As the band played "This Could Be The Start of Something Big," Wolf climbed onto the podium, trailed by a crew filming a political commercial, and waved to nearly 700 cheering supporters, including Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who turned out for his kickoff.
Wolf's political odyssey, from Frank Who? -- a man "who has spent one third of his adult life at Metro stations begging people to pay attention to him," said one close friend -- to Congressman Wolf, who commands attention by his very position, is partly a testament to his dogged persistence.
Even more important, it is a tribute to the sophisticated political organization that Northern Virginia Republicans have built. Two years ago, the Republican organization helped elect Wolf, a 43-year-old conservative lawyer-lobbyist, and oust Democrat Joseph L. Fisher, now Virginia's Secretary of Human Resources.
This year, Wolf is being challenged in the 10th Congressional District by former Arlington state legislator Ira M. Lechner, a 48-year-old Washington labor lawyer known for his organizational acumen. So far, Wolf has raised about $300,000 while Lechner, who is vice chairman of Virginia's Democratic Party, has raised $210,000. (There is a third candidate in the race, Libertarian Scott Bowden, who says his candidacy is largely symbolic.)
Wolf believes his party has an organizational edge this time. "We began building the party in the late 1970s," he said. "You don't do that overnight."
Although Wolf has the advantages that incumbency bestows, the quality of his political organization is believed to be especially important because Virginia voters do not register by party, and have a penchant for splitting tickets and electing candidates by razor-thin margins. A candidate's success often depends on his ability to woo large blocks of independent voters, who are among the nation's wealthiest and best educated.
"Frank has always seen that a strong party organization was the key to his victory," said Judy Shreve, chairman of the 10th District Republican Committee and of Wolf's campaign. A member of Wolf's inner circle, Shreve widely is credited with sparking the transformation of the district's GOP office from a part-time, relatively haphazard volunteer organization to a computerized operation staffed year-round by a paid professional and a dedicated core of workers.
"It used to be that when it came to fund-raising lists we had to reinvent the wheel for every campaign," said Marianne Cook, hired by Shreve four years ago to direct the GOP office in Falls Church. Since 1978, Cook said, the number of active Republican workers and contributors listed on the local Republican Party rolls has tripled.
Until 1978, veteran party workers say, the GOP organization was nearly moribund, demoralized by the stunning 1974 post-Watergate defeat of 11-term incumbent Joel T. Broyhill and by Wolf's l978 loss to Fisher, whom Wolf had outspent nearly two-to-one.
"In l975 you couldn't even buy a precinct captain in my district," said Thomas M. Davis III, a Republican member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "We had whole precincts where we didn't know anybody. In those days, I'd say we were lucky to have 50 workers in the whole Mason District which stretches from Baileys Crossroads to Annandale . Now we have at least 10 times that number."
Davis and other party activists say that the organization began rebuilding in earnest with the Senate campaign of Warner, whose actress wife Elizabeth Taylor helped "bring out people we'd never seen before."
"Every campaign picks up new people and the key is to not let them drop off, to keep them involved, and to keep getting new workers," said Virginia Lampe of Arlington, Broyhill's former campaign manager and a veteran Republican activist. "Frank is very good at party-building and he's very precinct-oriented."
Wolf is, by all accounts, also very popular within his own party.
"Frank has never stabbed anybody in the back, he goes to all sorts of party functions, campaigns for anybody who asks," said Ed DeBolt, one of Virginia's shrewdest Republican political consultants, who masterminded Wolf's 1980 victory and advised the winning campaigns of Warner and former Gov. John N. Dalton.
"In 1978 our precinct organization existed mostly on paper," recalled Carol Cones, who managed Wolf's 1978 campaign and now works with DeBolt. "We had holes everywhere, lots of untested people, and we just had to beat the bushes to get 100 people to come to our kickoff. It was terribly hard to get people to work for us."
Not so this year, say Wolf campaign officials who say they have 1,500 active volunteers--about 500 fewer than the number Lechner claims.
Wolf also has targeted more than 25 special-interest groups organized along ethnic and professional lines. There are Beauticians for Wolf, Armenians for Wolf, Doctors for Wolf and Barbers for Wolf. There even is a "Wolf Pack," composed of high school and college students who attend political rallies and Friday night high school football games to give out cards with referee's hand signals on one side and campaign slogans on the other.
Those groups were in evidence at last week's kickoff, which Wolf's campaign officials say deliberately was held in Arlington, the district's traditional Democratic stronghold and Lechner's hometown and power base.
Wolf officials, who had sent 8,000 flyers to campaign contributors and party workers, say they were pleased with the turnout of nearly 700, which outnumbers the 450 people Lechner campaign officials say attended his post-primary victory party in June.
Best of all, say campaign officials, was the turnout by new supporters and party workers. "I looked around the room that night and I didn't know half those people," said Lampe, who began working actively for the party 20 years ago. "It thrilled me half to death."