It's hard to blame the voters in Prince William County if they are having a difficult time taking sides in the race for the 52nd District seat of the House of Delegates. When the candidates aren't cooing praise at one another, they are often nodding in agreement over the major issues of the campaign.
"Jack is a very principled, idealistic young man," said Democrat George Dowd, 56, of his opponent recently. "I think he would be very conscientious in Richmond."
"My opponent is a very personable individual," said John A. Rollison III, a 34-year-old Republican making his third bid for the House. "He has good credentials to be a delegate."
Dowd and Rollison, both seeking to take the place of Floyd C. Bagley, a popular Democrat from Prince William for the last 10 years, vigorously support the construction of a commuter rail line through Prince William, and agree on the need to extend commuter lanes on Interstate 95 to the Stafford County border. Both men advocate the popular election of school boards.
In fact, the lack of controversial issues or personalities in the race has emerged as the most controversial aspect of the campaign.
"We pity the 52nd District voter who must decide between two insipid candidates who probably couldn't inspire a high school cheering section to root for the home team," wrote the Journal Messenger, a Manassas newspaper, in a recent editorial. The editorial implored Dowd and Rollison "to trade in their saccharine images and start some heavy-duty campaigning."
"Both of us suffer from the same problem, and that is that the campaign is perceived to be dull," conceded Dowd, who is an attorney in Bagley's law firm.
But the important issue of the campaign, both men said, is not who can find the most ways to disagree with his opponent, but who will represent the district most effectively.
Dowd, who in 1983 made an unsuccessful run against current candidate for lieutenant governor John Chichester when he was running for the state Senate, maintained that his affable and low-key manner will bring results. "Compromise is the glue that holds the process together. You have to be willing to listen and bend. I am not going to go to Richmond telling everyone that I am the oracle of Delphi and that I have all the answers."
By contrast, Dowd said, Rollison's idealism too often seems smug and self-righteous. "He is a very brittle person."
Rollison responded that his manner only reflects his convictions about the problems of Prince William County, where he has lived most of his life and owns Rollison's Tire & Auto Service. "If that comes off as stridency or overconfidence, I don't apologize," he said.
Rollison has painted himself as a sort of suburban visionary, reminding voters that he supported concepts such as commuter rail several years ago, before those positions were adapted by most Prince William Democrats. "I have a better sense of the feelings of the people here. I am more familiar with their problems," he said.
Both candidates have worked as legislative assistants in the House: Dowd for Bagley, and Rollison for Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-50th District). Dowd points to previous legislative experience in the state of Washington, where in 1956 at 27 he was the youngest member of the House of Representatives there.
The most colorful exchanges of the campaign have come over what both candidates concede is the relatively minor issue of whether to have a state lottery.
Dowd said Virginia is losing money to D.C. and Maryland because it has no lottery, and that one should be started with revenues earmarked for education. He tweaked Rollison for what he said is Rollison's refusal to go along with the idea. "He has some kind of moral problems about it, probably because he doesn't play bingo."
Rollison said the state's current tax system is a better means of raising revenue than a lottery.
One of the major questions of the campaign is how powerful the legacy of Bagley will turn out to be on election day. Bagley, who is now chairman of the Prince William County Democratic Committee, has strongly endorsed his law partner.
Dowd welcomed his support, but emphasized that "I am not a clone of Floyd Bagley." He said that, for example, he would depart from Bagley's style of introducing many bills each year to satisfy constituents.
For his part, Rollison, who lost twice in contentious races against Bagley, is confident that he will finally be successful against the man he views as Bagley's political protege. "This is the year. I feel like I'm more mature, more experienced."