The ballots from Tuesday's Virginia elections have not been officially counted yet, but many Democratic politicians are already saying that Del. Mary Sue Terry's landslide victory in the race for attorney general propels her into a commanding position to run for governor in 1989.
"I think she'd like to be governor," said George M. Stoddart, press secretary to Gov. Charles S. Robb and an unofficial adviser to the Terry campaign. "I don't know what her agenda is, but anybody who runs statewide wants to be governor."
Stoddart said Terry would have to be considered a top contender "if she wants to do it." The 38-year-old lawyer from southern Virginia is the first woman elected to statewide office in the state and only the second woman elected state attorney general in the country.
The daughter of two retired schoolteachers from rural Patrick County, Terry ran a campaign that even Republicans are praising. With Robb's help and a treasury of more than $1.3 million, over twice what her opponent raised, she captured 61 percent of the vote to lead all the candidates in the election.
Republican Wyatt B. Durrette, who lost Tuesday's election for governor, marveled at Terry, who defeated the GOP's W.R. (Buster) O'Brien by more than 300,000 votes. She was "perceived to be capable and in the mainstream of thinking," Durrette said. "She was very successful in her fund raising and she was able to go on television early with some good advertising."
Jeff Gregson, who took over O'Brien's lagging campaign in midsummer, attributed Terry's success to "awesome amounts of money she spent on advertising."
"The poor woman has not even raised her hand yet" to be sworn in, said David Hathcock, spokesman for the state attorney general's office, who complained it was too early to discuss the significance of Terry's victory. Still, Hathcock and others were impressed by the scope Terry's achievement, in which she carried all 10 of the state's congressional districts and even beat O'Brien in his home city of Virginia Beach.
Terry declines to be drawn into discussions about her long-range political plans. "My first and foremost objective at this point," Terry said, "is to justify the confidence and responsibility of the people who supported me."
Her campaign was designed to overcome concerns that a woman, particularly an unmarried one, could not win in Virginia. She stressed her experience as a county prosecutor, businesswoman and serious legislator.
Her million-dollar advertising campaign, developed by Washington consultant Robert Squier, attempted to show her not only tough enough for the job, but also supported by a family of parents, sisters, nieces and cousins.
Stoddart said Terry, running in the third position on the ballot, did not need a statewide organization to win the attorney general's office, but said she would have to create one if she decides to run for governor. "That's pretty easy," Stoddart said, "if you're a good candidate."
Stoddart said Terry is growing as a candidate, but that her first obligation will be to "grow into her job" as attorney general.
Terry polled 803,038 votes, about 90,000 more than Democrat Gerald L. Baliles, who won the governor's race, and 128,000 more than Democratic Sen. L. Douglas Wilder, who won the lieutenant governorship and became the first black elected to a major office in the South since Reconstruction.
Wilder has said he has no plans to seek higher office, but other Democrats, including Del. Richard M. Bagley of Hampton, have expressed an interest in the next race for governor. "First in line in '89," Bagley said when he dropped out of this year's contest.
Other potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates include Reps. Frederick Boucher of Southwest Virginia and Norman Sisisky of Petersburg.
Some politicians hint that Robb, who under Virginia law cannot succeed himself, may also seek the state's highest office again in 1989. Aides close to him discount that possibility. Robb, who led a Democratic sweep in 1981 and played a key role in this year's campaign, is being widely mentioned as a potential national candidate in 1988.
Terry was a classmate of Robb's at the University of Virginia Law School and is widely seen as a Robb protege. He gave Terry a high-profile role in devising new legislation against drunk driving that gave her statewide publicity.
This year, when Terry held a $100,000 fund-raising event, some of her major donors, including some of the state's conservative business leaders, openly talked about her chances of being elected governor.
"Let's talk about the attorney general's office," she said this week. "The next attorney general will have the . . . . " she said, stopping herself in midsentence.
"I keep forgetting I'm elected. I will have the opportunity" to build on the organization left by Baliles, a former attorney general.
She said four of the last attorneys general have reorganized the office. "With respect to all of them, I think Jerry has done it right."