The news Friday was unmistakably bad for freshman Democratic Rep. Frederick C. (Rick) Boucher. Proclaimed the front page of the Bristol Herald Courier: "Boucher workers arrested."
All morning, area radio stations reported that four of Boucher's campaign staffers had been charged with destruction of property for pulling down four campaign signs belonging to his Republican opponent, state Del. C. Jefferson Stafford.
Stafford, 45, a chain-smoking 13-year veteran of the Virginia General Assembly, made certain the news did not go unnoticed. He mentioned the arrests at three news conferences and a debate that day, once claiming that the incident was an example of "crimes against the elderly" because one of the destroyed signs had been hung by a senior citizen.
It was a typical -- some would say relatively mild -- day in Southwest Virginia's "Fightin' 9th" congressional district, a region reknown for a rough-hewn, partisan politics rarely seen elsewhere in the state.
This year the 9th is living up to its reputation. More than any of the seven congressional races in the state this fall, the Boucher-Stafford contest is a battle of emotional rhetoric and "negative" campaign tactics.
Stafford campaign buttons signal the tone and style of the challenger. "I'm sick of Rick," they say.
With a campaign staff that includes two former officials of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, which has specialized in campaigns against liberals, Stafford has stressed taxes, school prayer, abortion, the threat of communism, and even questioned Boucher's Virginia roots.
"My opponent supports a moment of silence to pray in schools , but frankly I don't need a moment of silence," Stafford said during a debate last week. "We're talking about vocal prayers in school. The way you teach a child to pray is to say a prayer. This has been a way of life in Virginia."
Boucher, a mild-mannered 38-year-old bachelor and former state senator from Abingdon, has tried to stress his own "positive campaign for the future." The Democrat, who upset 18-year Republican Rep. William Wampler by 1,200 votes in 1982, talks about his role as sponsor of the Older Americans Act, his opposition to President Reagan's budget cuts, and his support for a major highway and small airports in the far reaches of the district.
While national Republican and Democratic strategists privately give the edge to Boucher, they say the tenor of the race makes the outcome less than certain, with Stafford clearly hoping to ride the president's coattails into office. Reagan narrowly carried the district in 1980.
Conscious of the conservative and traditional nature of many district voters, who range from coal miners in Appalachia to wealthy old-line Virginia farmers near here, Stafford has sought to portray Boucher as a "big-spending liberal" and political clone of Democratic presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale.
"What do Walter Mondale and Rick Boucher have in common?" asks Stafford's latest 30-second television commercial. "A lot," a booming voice answers.
"If we see Mondale and Boucher placards together, we love it," says Joseph Steffen, a press secretary for Stafford who used to work for NCPAC. "People are doing us a favor when they put the two together."
In the course of 14 debates, Stafford seldom has failed to remind his audience that Mondale campaigned for Boucher two years ago and this year Boucher was the first member of the Virginia congressional delegation to endorse Mondale for president. Stafford then ticks off ratings Boucher has received from reputedly liberal organizations: the Americans for Democratic Action (80 percent), the AFL-CIO (80 percent), the National Education Assocation (100 percent).
Stafford's literature accuses Boucher of "sending tax dollars to communist countries" (a reference to a vote for funding the International Monetary Fund), while describing himself as a hard-core anticommunist. "I have said there should be no nuclear weapons at all on earth, except maybe one, and we would have it," is a staple Stafford campaign line.
A lawyer from Pearisburg, Stafford has lambasted Boucher for voting against a bipartisan plan last year to beef up the Social Security system, which affects about 11 percent of the district's residents. Rep. Claude Pepper, an 84-year-old Florida Democrat who is viewed as a champion of the elderly, "begged Congress to pass this bill, and Rick Boucher voted against it," he says. Boucher says he opposed the bill because it would have delayed some benefits to senior citizens.
It isn't clear if the Stafford assault is working. One woman wearing a Stafford button at a recent debate here said she will vote for the challenger because "I just like him." Several other Stafford supporters said they will vote for him because they favor the Reagan social agenda, which he supports.
After a debate at Moose Lodge 1470 in Christiansburg, Virgie Gardner said she would vote against Stafford. "I think he's kind of a smart aleck," she said, mimicking the Republican's high-pitched, slightly nasal voice.
"I think clearly he Boucher isn't a raging liberal," said Jamie Woodhouse, a lawyer and parliamentarian for the Radford Democratic organization. "He's a gentleman in the old-line way. He's competent. He clearly knows what he's doing."
Boucher has refrained from appearing too cozy with the Democratic ticket. He and his supporters are quick to advertise his endorsement by the National Rifle Association and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Contrary to the message in Stafford's ads, Boucher insists that he opposes Mondale's proposal for a tax increase and supports voluntary, although not vocal, prayer in school.
"I don't think people see me as constantly tied to Mondale," Boucher said last week. Nor has he been, he says, a naysayer to Reagan. "I have supported this president when I thought he was right," Boucher said. "But I haven't hesitated to stand up to him when I thought he was wrong."
Boucher has benefited from some glitches in Stafford's campaign. When former president Gerald R. Ford came here to campaign for Stafford, he wound up spending most of his time explaining why, as a member of Congress, he had voted against federal funding for black lung benefits, a major issue in the district's coal counties.
Meanwhile, Stafford has turned to comparing the candidates' Virginia pedigrees.
"A congressman we can call our own" is Stafford's motto. "I believe in the Virginia philosophy of government -- limited government, limited spending, limited taxation."
His commercials stress that Stafford has never lived out of the state. Boucher, whose great-grandfather and grandfather both served in the Virginia legislature, lived in New York for three years while he worked as a lawyer on Wall Street.