Nunzio DiPerna of Alexandria says the day he closed his restaurant in downtown Washington was supposed to the last day he spent trapped in traffic. Five years later, however, DiPerna says he rarely drives in Northern Virginia without encountering traffic jams, even during nonrush hours.
"It's really a mess," said DiPerna, a 57-year-old Democrat. "I think transportation is a good issue. That's something a governor can do something about."
But DiPerna, like many voters in Northern Virginia, where hour-long commutes and Capital Beltway gridlock are part of daily life, said he doesn't see much difference in how the two candidates for governor of Virginia in the Nov. 5 election would handle the issue. "They're both good," he said. "I think either one can win."
That perception -- the inability of either Republican Wyatt B. Durrette or Democrat Gerald L. Baliles to emerge as the clear champion of the region's thousands of commuters -- has emerged as one of the greatest problems in their $6 million campaign for the governor's office.
Both agree that Northern Virginia is the battlefield that will decide who wins. Yet random interviews with residents of the area and a recent Washington Post poll indicate that neither man has succeeded in exciting many voters in the Washington suburbs.
Patricia Byron, stopping to shift an armload of packages during a shopping trip to Tysons Corner Mall earlier this week, spoke for many: "I asked my husband, 'Well, are we going to vote?' And he said, 'What for and who for?' "
"It just hasn't dawned on people we have a governor's race," said state Del. Gladys Keating, a Democrat who is seeking reelection to the legislature from Fairfax County. "The Democrats had a parade recently and nobody came out."
Officials say they have come to expect that in Northern Virginia. "The voters don't come to life here until 10 days before the election," said Jane G. Vitray, Fairfax County electoral board secretary. "And since a candidate cannot personally see many of the people here, they've got to rely a lot on the mass media."
Northern Virginia is a region of political inconsistencies. There is less political middle ground here than elsewhere in Virginia: voters are more likely to classify themselves as liberals or conservatives. They tend to be better educated and have higher incomes than their counterparts statewide.
Yet its voters are among the most transient and apathetic in Virginia, frequently more attuned to national and neighborhood politics than state issues. The Washington Post poll earlier this month showed that no region of the state has a higher percentage of voters who have not decided which candidates they will support in the election.
With such attitudes widespread it is not surprising that only in the last decade have most statewide candidates tried to seriously woo Northern Virginia voters. The issues of suburban growth -- Metro, condominiums, office sprawl and traffic jams -- mystify many downstate politicians. At the same time, some of those politicians mock the Washington suburban region with such monikers as "The People's Republic of Alexandria."
"Wyatt Durrette makes no bones about claiming to be a son of Northern Virginia and his opponent makes it a point to indicate his familiarity with Northern Virginia," said state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell, a Republican from Alexandria.
"But it always hasn't been that way. A couple of governor's candidates in the past suggested they ought to saw Northern Virginia off the state and let it float out to sea. Far from floating out to sea, it's now probably the most courted section of the state."
And to court the region, which has one of every five registered voters in the state, candidates have taken crash courses in the in the special interests of Northern Virginians.
"The way you win elections in Northern Virginia is by talking about transportation," said Dick Leggit, adviser to Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.). "The most important thing they care about is that they're stuck for two hours a day in traffic. Anybody who can come up with an answer, a dream or a reality to deal with the problem gets the votes. Anybody who ignores it does so at their peril."
"For most Northern Virginians, transportation is probably the biggest worry that we have," said Richard Anderson, who commutes from Vienna in central Fairfax County to Tysons Corner where he works as a salesman at a department store.
"I'm absolutely terrified about what's going to happen to the traffic when Tysons II a new shopping center opens. I haven't really heard anyone talking about what's going to be done to relieve it."
"If one of the candidates really addresses that problem, I'll be glad to see it," said Anderson, adding, "In general, I just wish Gov. Charles S. Robb were running; I've been pretty satisfied with his administration."
Both Durrette and Baliles have responded to the interests of the Washington suburban commuter. They have rushed to embrace the need for better roads and state support for the Metro transit system as top priorities in their administrations.
Durrette, for example, has endorsed retaining the rush hour car pool restrictions on I-66 and Baliles says he supports commuter rail between Manassas and Fredericksburg and the District.
Still, a number of residents are skeptical. Laura Niel, an accounting student at George Mason University, said she considers transportation a major issue. "It takes my husband over an hour to get to work in Bethesda." But she said she was not certain whether either candidate had pledged to address the problem. "I guess I'm sort of apathetic. I really haven't kept up."
Television is the major way that the candidates attempt to reach the voters in Northern Virginia and because that means buying time on Washington TV that makes the region Virginia's most costly campaign battleground.
While it is the area where candidates say they need television advertising the most, they must pay 10 times more for it than in the other TV markets around the state.
Despite the apathy Northern Virginians have displayed toward the campaigns, Northern Virginia contributors are giving to the candidates in record amounts. Baliles has reported that about one quarter of all his contributions have come from the Washington suburbs.
Campaign officials say it is a sign that Northern Virginians are taking a less parochial view of the region and are becoming more atuned to the benefits a friendly governor can bestow on the region.
But while Northern Virginia has plenty of voters, traditional handshaking, speech-making politicking isn't easy.
"Where do you go to meet people?" says Jeff Gregson, campaign manager for Del. W.R. (Buster) O'Brien of Virginia Beach, the Republican candidate for attorney general. "It's not like riding through downtown Emporia where you can go up one street and down the other and get your name and picture in the local paper."
While Mary Sue Terry, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, attends pig roasts and oyster festivals in some parts of Virginia, she had officials host a "high tea" for her in Fairfax.
And, the Republicans say it pays to be creative. Dozens of Durrette volunteers, dubbed the "Wyatt Squad," have flooded parking lots at shopping malls -- the central gathering spots of Northern Virginians -- scrubbing the windshields of parked cars and leaving leaflets soliciting votes.
"Your windshield has been washed by a young volunteer for Wyatt Durrette. We hope you can see your way clear to vote for Wyatt Durrette on Nov. 5."
"That was a great idea," said Patricia Byron, whose car got the treatment. "His name stuck in my mind."