Virginia, unlike Maryland, has never really embraced the political clubhouse affair, where beer and bingo mix with politics. Instead the premiere social politicking usually takes place at outdoor events, with seafood or chicken, country music and a cast of thousands.
The granddaddy of the Virginia gatherings is the Shad Planking, which has, in turn, spawned a handful of other big political fests -- including Sen. John W. Warner's autumn Atoka supper, the Northern Virginia Democrats crab feast and, most recently, Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr.'s Republican Gascony gathering.
The senator held his third gathering Saturday at Gascony Plantation, his parents' estate on the Chesapeake Bay, where they have lived for more than a decade. It is on the Northern Neck, about three hours south of Washington.
About 2,000 people paid $30 a ticket to eat fried fish and fritters, and listen to country music and political speeches. Trible's reelection campaign (his seat is up in 1988) will get one-third of the money raised, the Virginia Federation of Republican Women another third and the Republicans in each of the 10 Virginia congressional districts will divide the rest.
During the five-hour affair at Gascony, the crowd listened with delight as a male barbershop quartet took digs at the women's movement: "I'll be standing on the pier handing out doughnuts when we send the girls to fight over there," said one speaker. Miss Virginia, Susan Parker, wowed the audience with her songs -- the "Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America."
But the real star of the day was conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). "I'm a real admirer of yours," gushed one woman, who rushed up to him. "We need more like you," said a man, grabbing Helms' hand.
Helms received the warmest ovation from the crowd, appearing to outshine host Trible and GOP gubernatorial candidate Wyatt B. Durrette.
During his speech, Helms hit on several conservative themes. At one point, he asked how many farmers were present. A scattering of hands shot up. He declared that as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he intended to do what he could to return farming to the free market system. The farmers applauded loudly.
Helms then turned to Nicaragua and the "communist threat." If Nicaragua and Honduras fall to the communists, "Mexico will tumble. And if that happens, we don't have much of a chance in this country," Helms said, as the crowd showed its agreement by breaking into even wilder applause.
The loudest, longest ovation came when Helms declared: "But the number one enemy of this country is the inability of Americans to get the truth from the major news media of this country." Helms this year attempted to orchestrate a conservative takeover of CBS, then named the three major television networks plus The New York Times and The Washington Post as the targets of his ire.
Helms spoke warmly of Virginia's long tradition of conservatism and noted that the state is called the Mother of Presidents, because eight were born in the state. "The problem with this country," the senator said, "is that Virginia has not been in a family way in a long time."
Durrette, a Richmond lawyer and former Fairfax County legislator, continued that anti-Washington theme. "We in Virginia can solve our problems," he said. "Just get your hands out of our pockets and your regulations off our backs."
Helms predicted that Durrette will win the governor's race against Democratic candidate Gerald L. Baliles, the state attorney general. But Helms was more reticient about predicting the lieutenant governor's race: "I understand you need a program for that one."
All five of the GOP candidates in that race were working the crowd. Their speeches were noncombative and low-keyed compared with the exchanges that used to occur between Durrette and Rep. Stan Parris, before the Northern Virginia congressman dropped out of the governor's race.
The only minor hitch came when state Sen. John H. Chichester, a candidate for lieutenant governor, inadvertently called Trible's wife "Katherine." Supporters for other lieutentant governor candidates snickered, and then laughed again when another lieutenant governor candidate -- J. Marshall Coleman of McLean -- rose and immediately referred to her by her correct name, Rosemary.
The lieutenant governor's candidate who seemed to stir the most attention was Maurice Dawkins, the black conservative from Northern Virginia who has worked with Warner and Trible to get blacks into the GOP. Dawkins worked for Ronald Reagan in California when Reagan was the state's governor.
Because most Virginia Republicans concede the black vote to Democrats, many listened with awe and hope as Dawkins told the crowd that this substantial bloc of votes could be theirs.
Blacks, said Dawkins, are basically conservative. They believe in a strong church and a strong military and most are against abortion, much like the congregations of the conservative, white churches. Dawkins predicted 30 percent of the black vote for Durrette, and much more for Virginia Republicans in the future.
Dawkins said he is not a serious candidate for lieutenant governor, but that his candidacy was intended as a magnet to draw blacks into the Republican Party. He says he has sent black supporters to work for each of the Republican candidates.
"That way, no matter who wins, they the Republican nominees will have to have blacks working for them," said Dawkins.