The theme for this month's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Richmond, an annual fund-raiser for the Virginia Democratic Party, was "Launching the New Future" and the keynote speaker was Ohio Sen. John Glenn.
Putting two and two together, some Democrats came away from the event with the impression that Glenn, a soon-to-be-declared candidate for president, had been brought to them, courtesy of Gov. Charles S. Robb, as a suitable choice for the Old Dominion.
"I think a clear message went out that Chuck likes Glenn," said Marianne Tucker, a longtime Democratic activist now based in Tidewater. "He's not about to commit himself, but he probably thinks Glenn is a good candidate to carry Virginia."
It is already popular wisdom among some party activists that Glenn, a moderate with a military background, could pass muster in a state that has repeatedly rejected Democrats of a more liberal mold. But whether Robb favors him over the rest of the current pack of Democratic presidential aspirants is not so clear, at least according to Robb's own staff.
"I don't think it should be taken as a sign of anything," insisted George Stoddart, Robb's press secretary who noted that the guest at last year's J-J dinner was Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) and that former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew met with Robb and other leading Democrats in Richmond last summer. "You could make the same case for Hollings, Askew or the invitee to next year's dinner," Stoddart said.
Whatever the implications of Glenn's appearance, most agree that his reception in Richmond was inconclusive and that the presidential race in Virginia is still wide open. "The reaction wasn't negative but it wasn't a stampede either," said Bobby Watson, chief political aide to Democratic Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis.
There was also a snafu in protocol that caused the Glenn camp some embarrassment among Virginia's black leadership. Because of a mix-up, Virginia's two black state senators--L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond and Robert Scott of Newport News--found out secondhand that they were expected at a pre-dinner meeting between Glenn and black leaders.
As a result, Wilder attended neither the meeting nor the dinner. Since then, Glenn has written Wilder a letter, seeking another meeting, and Wilder says he will be happy to oblige. But the incident suggested that Glenn was off to a rough start among a key group of Democrats.
If Glenn's first outing in the state failed to ignite fires among Virginia Democrats, others jostling for the presidential nomination have not done much better. Unlike Maryland, where the party hierarchy has already come out for former Vice President Walter Mondale, or parts of the deep South being heavily wooed by the candidates, Virginia has been unmoved by presidential fever.
"They don't seem real anxious to start campaigning," Tucker said. Mondale will make his first foray in the state with an appearance later this month before the Young Democrats' convention in Arlington.
Arlington County Board member John Milliken, a law partner of Mondale's, has been making preliminary calls around the state, sounding out support for the former vice president. "I've been getting a good response," Milliken said. "But a lot of people laugh and say, 'Oh, that's next year. Do we have to start worrying about that now?' "
Other potential candidates are only just beginning to put together their organization, in some cases hiring staff with Virginia experience who could be expected to put their contacts to use. James Carville, who managed Davis' campaign for Senate last year, is now working for Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.). David Doak, Robb's campaign manager in 1981, is reportedly ready to help Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) if he runs.
Virginia, which selects its convention delegates at mass meetings held simultaneously around the state, has never been a high-visibility state in nomination battles and many don't expect 1984 to be any different. Other southern states, which will be holding primaries jointly on March 13, 1984, have captured more attention from the candidates.
This year, Virginia strategists are tentatively eyeing March 19 as the day for mass meetings--earlier than usual in the hopes that the candidates will stop by on their way in and out of the deep South. The final dates will be decided by the state party's central committee later this spring.
Also, unlike most other states, Virginia has its own elections to worry about this year. All 140 seats in the General Assembly will be filled in November, making top Democratic officeholders cautious about jumping ahead on presidential campaigns.
In fact, many Virginia Democrats are talking about going uncommitted to the national party convention, perhaps uniting behind a favorite son candidacy for Robb.
"Robb is in a nice position to play power broker and people in Virginia get very excited about that," said Mark Emblidge, deputy chief of staff for Glenn who served as chief fund-raiser for Robb in 1981.