Television evangelist Pat Robertson, testing the waters of a possible presidential bid in 1988, told Virginia Republicans today that the party must reach out to women and labor if it is to become the majority party.
The state GOP, seeking ways of averting a repeat of last month's debacle at the hands of the Democrats, heard a diverse group of speakers deliver a single message -- unite and expand.
Robertson, a native of nearby Lexington whose father served in Congress 34 years, recalled the biblical story of the building of the Tower of Babel. He said God said that if people "are able to accomplish all of this in political and linguistic disunity, think what they could do together . . . . Nothing will be unattainable."
Other speakers at a weekend "advance" -- they refused to call the conference a retreat -- included former U.S. Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr., political scientist Larry Sabato and state party Chairman Donald Huffman. They cited less lofty sources but delivered similar sermons: Stop fighting among yourselves or face a repeat of the Nov. 5 Democratic sweep of the three top statewide offices.
Members of the losing ticket were here, but like gubernatorial nominee Wyatt Durrette, they took no active role in the proceedings.
"We can't exclude, we can't purge," Robertson said in a speech that received repeated and enthusiastic applause. "This is the party of the future majority. We are on the crest. We've got to get comfortable with each other."
He said women are "increasing their participation in every aspect of our lives, and we need to be on the side of fair and equal wages for women."
Management and labor should "no longer be thought of as us and them," Robertson said. "Working people are our natural allies. They are patriotic, family oriented. They are not the enemy."
Robertson said, "The most profound sociological change in the nation is the spiritual revival. If you trivialize it, you're in trouble." He said there are political and economic, as well as moral costs, of abortion and "hedonistic practices" that lead to such diverse problems as budget deficits and acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
While Robertson is best known for his television appearances broadcast by his Virginia Beach-based Christian Broadcasting Network, he said surveys show that most voters want personal contact with candidates.
Despite the warm reception, Robertson's appearance was not unanimously cheered. State Sen. Wiley Mitchell of Alexandria said, for example, that while there is "room in our party for him and me, Pat Robertson isn't the answer to our problems."
Robertson's political action committee, the Fund For Freedom, was host of a private dinner tonight for Huffman, his boyhood friend.
Robertson said such meetings held around the country will help him "crystallize" whether he should make a bid for the GOP nomination for president. But he said the decision "primarily will be made as a result of prayer. I'm doing a great deal of that."
The need to broaden the party's base was also the theme of a luncheon speech by Baker, the former senator from Tennessee, also a possible presidential candidate. He urged the GOP officials to "hear and understand what people are saying." He said the party should offer "a broad tent . . . that can accommodate a decent respect for differing points of view."
Huffman called on the party leaders to "examine our failures and weaknesses, and turn them into strengths."
He cautioned conference participants to be careful what they said to reporters, who were barred from most of the meetings and workshops.
"We must not give them controversy to dwell on and further drag this party down, as we did over and over during the election," he said. "Our goal this weekend must be one of constructive criticism."
But Huffman did not seek to blame the news media, saying, "We were our own worst enemy."
He said that the Democratic sweep was not a rejection of conservatism. "I didn't hear a single one of their statewide candidates own up to being a liberal. If they had, we would have defeated them. The lesson to be learned," he told the 150 participants at the Ingleside Inn, is that "we must learn to run against Democrats who talk like Republicans."
Huffman said the party gave Gov. Charles S. Robb "a free ride . . . . We did not hold him accountable for the problems within his administration . . . . We took one look at his favorable rating and decided we couldn't touch him."
Those decisions, Huffman said, "came back to haunt us." He noted that Robb appeared in "television and radio spots for everyone from their candidate for governor down to people running for the board of supervisors."
Since the Democrats' second straight sweep of the top three state offices, Huffman said he has heard criticism of various factions within the GOP, from "Byrd Democrats-turned-Republicans to the religious right, Mountain Valley Republicans, Main Street [the Richmond financial community], Northern Virginia." But he said, "We need every one of them."
He urged party leaders to "lay aside hard feelings . . . . We are not the opposition, the opposition lies without."
Nonetheless, throughout the weekend there was grumbling about this year's ticket, and Huffman's leadership.
Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political science professor who specializes in election analysis, told the conference this morning that the major surprise in last month's voting patterns was the turnout, which at 1.37 million was about 200,000 below projections, or 53 percent of the registered voters, compared to 65 percent four years ago.
The most dramatic decline in turnout, Sabato said, occurred in the suburbs, traditionally Republican strongholds.
If suburbanites had turned out as usual, Sabato said, state Sen. John C. Chichester, the GOP's candidate for lieutenant governor, would have won. Not even strength in the suburbs would have rescued Durrette or attorney general candidate W.R. (Buster) O'Brien, according to Sabato.