In one of the rituals of Virginia politics, the state's two candidates for governor began rolling out groups of mostly prominent conservatives and independents this week who will support their campaigns.
Supporters of Democrat Gerald L. Baliles were out of the starting gate first today, announcing a list of about 500 people under the "Virginians for Baliles" banner.
A similar group for Wyatt B. Durrette, which also had been expected today, won't be released until Thursday because of scheduling problems, a spokesman said.
The "Virginians for . . . " committees are a feature of the state's politics, allowing influential business and civic leaders to choose candidates without formally identifying with either the Democratic or Republican parties.
"It confers a degree of legitimacy" on a state candidate, said one official who helped put together the Baliles list today. "It's more important to a Democrat than a Republican because the type of people [who join the committees] tend to be nationally Republicans."
The committees stem from the days of the late senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. and have been used by nominal Democrats within Virginia to support GOP candidates and anoint statewide candidates as acceptable to the state's conservatives. Whether the endorsements translate into many votes is a matter of debate, but their advocates say the committees and the names they carry can help a candidate win financial contributions that might otherwise be denied them.
Many of those in the lists leadership have been lieutenants of Byrd, his son, former senator Harry F. Byrd Jr., former governor Mills E. Godwin and leaders of Richmond's "Main Street" financial district who often are referred to as "the coalition."
Increasingly, younger members have been added to the "Virginians for . . . " committees and there has been less unity about which candidates to support. Such splits, some politicians have said, lessen the importance of the committees. Although they give money and run independent advertising, the impact of the group in the past has been its ability to largely speak as one voice of Virginia business, politicians said.
The chairmen of Baliles' group are W. Wright Harrison, a retired Norfolk banker, and John W. Hancock Jr. of Roanoke. Both supported Democratic incumbent Gov. Charles S. Robb, who wrested much of the traditional conservative leadership from Republican J. Marshall Coleman in their 1981 race for governor.
Godwin and W. Roy Smith, a retired legislator from Petersburg who headed "Virginians for Robb," are supporting Durrette this year.
The Baliles list includes several Northern Virginians, including Harley W. Davidson of Arlington, president of Independent Theaters Inc., and Fairfax Supervisor Joseph Alexander.
"There's no one on their list that surprises us," a spokesman for Durrette said.
Harrison told a news conference that Durrette "probably is qualified" to be governor, but that Baliles "is more qualified." Harrison said Durrette "hasn't held public office for eight years" while Baliles "has been sitting at the right hand of Robb," one of the state's most popular governors.
Harrison dismissed Durrette's attempt to paint Baliles as a "big-spending, big-government" liberal. "If Chuck Robb is a conservative, Jerry Baliles is more conservative," Harrison said.