Stand on any street corner in downtown Norfolk and it's easy to see why Virginia Democrats are excited about L. Douglas Wilder, the Richmond state senator and candidate for lieutenant governor.
"It's way past time this is happening," said Walter Martin, a 28-year-old accountant, explaining why he is going to vote Nov. 5 for Wilder, the first black to be nominated by a major party for statewide office since Reconstruction.
"This state is growing, and there are a lot of young blacks who are looking for ways" to overcome racial barriers, said Martin. "We need someone who is going to look directly at that problem."
Ulysses Howard, a 36-year-old Postal Service employe, agreed that Wilder has struck a chord among Norfolk blacks, who make up nearly 40 percent of the city's electorate.
"Some say he doesn't have a chance, but he seems to be getting out and meeting the people more than the other candidates," Howard said. "The others just seem to be laying back."
Here as in other Virginia cities, Wilder's candidacy has energized black voters the same way the Rev. Jesse Jackson did last year when his presidential candidacy spurred the addition of thousands of new voters to the registration rolls and led to upset victories in the presidential caucuses in Hampton Roads.
It also has surprised a number of local politicians who were privately saying that Wilder's nomination would hurt the Democratic ticket this fall.
With polls showing Wilder ahead of his Republican opponent, state Sen. John H. Chichester of Stafford County, Democrats are banking on a large turnout of black voters in the cities of Norfolk, Newport News, Portsmouth and Suffolk to help them win a region that contains one of every five voters in the state -- as many voters as in Northern Virginia.
Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Gerald L. Baliles of Richmond has called both areas crucial to his campaign.
This week, The Virginian-Pilot, the region's largest newspaper, surprised many of the area's politicians by ending five years of Republican endorsements to support the entire Democratic ticket.
Interviews in the region, where Democratic voters are concentrated in some of the state's oldest cities and Republicans in some of its fastest-growing suburbs, indicate that the Democratic strategy may be working.
Robert L. Stern, chairman of the Norfolk Democratic Party, says Wilder has defused the race issue and that the GOP's hard-hitting assaults on Baliles have fallen flat.
"People who at first expected [racial] prejudice to play a big part in the election now don't believe it will," Stern said. Durrette's "efforts to try to picture Baliles as a big spender haven't made a dent" on the Norfolk electorate, Stern said.
The Wilder effect has been pronounced because the other statewide candidates on both tickets appear to have failed to capture the attention of many voters, especially in suburban areas such as Virginia Beach.
"I've never seen so much apathy," said state Sen. A. Joseph Canada, a Republican. "There isn't enough contrast between the gubernatorial candidates to stir up very much interest."
"I don't usually pay too much attention to the state election," said George Seabold Sr., a retired department store manager who lives in Virginia Beach. "It's going to be the same old story. Taxes will be just as high no matter who wins. It really doesn't make any difference."
That kind of attitude, if it is shared by other Virginia Beach voters on election day, would deal a severe blow to Republican gubernatorial candidate Wyatt B. Durrette and his running mates.
White, suburban, traditionally Republican and the state's largest city, Virginia Beach is vital to Durrette.
He has been counting on the home town pull of state Del. W.R. (Buster) O'Brien, an affable Virginia Beach lawyer who is running as the GOP nominee for state attorney general. Despite a stumbling start in his 1985 campaign, O'Brien's popularity continues to be high throughout Hampton Roads.
"I usually vote Democratic [but] I think I'll switch over and go for O'Brien," said H.A. McAdams, a Virginia Beach retiree, reflecting the attitude of many.
In an appeal for votes at "The Beach," Durrette has thrown his unequivocal support behind a plan to build a $176 million pipeline to a lake on the North Carolina border to quench the city's growing demand for drinking water.
He also has stressed his support for dredging shipping channels here and building new port facilities, projects that appeal to the region's major industries -- home building and shipping.
Charles Blough, a 26-year-old mechanic at Berkley Machine Works, a Norfolk company that manufactures parts for ships and tanks, is unimpressed. "They're not really saying very much," the Chesapeake resident said. "They sound so similar to me."
Durrette and Baliles "haven't captured the imagination" of the voters, said a federal worker from Virginia Beach who asked that he not be identified. "I don't get a sense that [the election] makes any difference to people."
Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb overcame the strong Republican tradition in the beach region four years ago and took the city by a slim 933-vote margin, a key factor in his victory over Republican J. Marshall Coleman.
Baliles is trying to duplicate the Robb approach this year, distancing himself from national Democratic policies and appealing to the city's moderate and conservative voters.
Party officials say Baliles has overcome the stigma of having defeated Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis of Portsmouth, the favorite son in Hampton Roads, for the 1985 gubernatorial nomination.
Durrette's efforts in Hampton Roads may have been undercut by what some Republicans fear is a low-key campaign. Norfolk Republican Frank Spicer said party members have complained that Durrette "is too easygoing. They feel he should be on the offensive, more aggressive . . . . People just can't seem to get excited about this [gubernatorial] race."
In many ways, campaigning in the region is like running in the Washington suburbs. Voters in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and elsewhere tend to be preoccupied with development issues that are decided by municipal and county officials. Many work for the federal government and are, like Northern Virginians, tuned to national issues.
A recent Washington Post poll showed that residents of the area tend to be slightly more Democratic than voters across the state and have fewer families with household incomes of $50,000 or more. It also has a larger percentage of black voters -- 30 percent -- than the state, which has 17 percent.
Almost 300,000 people -- or nearly a quarter of the region's population -- are connected in some way with the military and related industries such as shipbuilding and defense contractors. And many of them are transient and not registered to vote in the state.
"The question always comes to how to get the people's attention there," said Coleman, the former state attorney general.
"The only thing that stirs this gang up is the national election," said Thomas Sitherwood, an auditor at the Naval Air Rework Facility here, a division of the Naval Air Station that repairs and overhauls military aircraft.
Despite Durrette's problems, Democrats here are not claiming victory for their ticket in Hampton Roads. In addition to O'Brien, Durrette is hoping that his association with President Reagan, who is very popular here, will help his chances.
Durrette is trying to appeal to the military and conservatives here by saturating the area with TV commercials showing him side by side with Reagan at a recent fund-raiser in Arlington.
"The president's appearance in this election should have a very positive impact on [the] campaign," Canada said.