Virginia Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb warned for the first time today that he may endorse a candidate in an attempt to resolve a bitter delegate dispute between his party's two candidates for governor.
Robb, acknowledging he had failed in efforts to mediate an ongoing feud between the two, blamed Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis for the collapse of talks between Davis and his opponent, state Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles.
Confirming that Davis pulled his representatives out of the week-old talks, Robb said, "I think the word I used was 'disappointed' and I expressed that personally to Dick Davis."
Robb made the comments at a news conference called before his scheduled departure Saturday for a 10-day European trade mission.
Robb and other party leaders have been trying to head off a divisive fight between Baliles, 44, who led the party's recent delegate selection caucuses, and Davis, 63, who has said he may challenge as many as 750 of Baliles' delegates to block his apparent nomination.
Robb, saying the impasse has frustrated him and other Democratic leaders, said he may endorse a candidate before the party's June 7 nominating convention here to help resolve the issue.
"This is certainly one of the options . . . to me and to many others . . . who have expressed a willingness to act in concert . . . if it is clearly in the best interests of the party," Robb said.
The impasse over the delegates, which now must go to a crucial meeting of the party's 202-member State Central Committee on April 28 for several key parliamentary decisions, suggests that the party may be headed for open political warfare, which Robb had sought to avoid.
The central issue is whether five at-large members of a preconvention credentials committee were properly elected at a Feb. 2 party meeting that Davis forces controlled. Baliles contends the committee is stacked against him and has complained that Davis is trying to win by parliamentary maneuvers what he lost in the caucuses.
Davis has maintained that the committee is fair and agreed to compromise talks with Robb and Baliles representatives. But on Wednesday, Davis labeled the discussions "backroom politics" and withdrew. Robb, angry at Davis' remark, later said he would not initiate further talks.
Robb, who under Virginia law cannot succeed himself, repeatedly warned that top party officials, whom he would not name, believe the dispute could damage whomever survives the nomination process, as well as the candidates for lieutenant governor, attorney general and the race for 100 House of Delegate seats.
"The perception of fairness . . . is critical to our election" in the fall against Republicans, Robb said.
"The fact of the matter is, the Davis campaign has followed the rules and procedures and the Baliles campaign is trying to make up for its incompetence" at the February meeting, said Christopher Spanos, director of Davis' campaign.
Spanos declined to comment on Robb's remarks, which several observers said appeared to suggest that Robb now believes Davis cannot win his uphill fight against Baliles without damaging the party.
Asked specifically if Robb believed that Baliles' claim of victory in the contest after the caucuses was premature, Robb said, "No, I have not said that at all."
At one point during the news conference, Robb noted that there had been four meetings in the last week and "anybody who withdrew at that point would be terminating the process -- and if you use legal parlance, you withdraw with prejudice."
Robb agreed that a remark he made in 1982 that Davis lacked the "fire in the belly" to win his bid for the U.S. Senate that year has come back to haunt this year's contest.
"The fact that fire in the belly has been an issue in this campaign does indeed have an impact . . . " Robb said, but he stressed the remark was made in 1982 because Davis really wanted to be governor rather than a U.S. senator. "I have never questioned at any time his commitment to this campaign," Robb said.