Virginia Republicans, mired in internal bickering and unable even to hold a grand finale banquet because of lack of interest, struggled through a lackluster state convention here today that many delegates said symbolized the disarray of the state party.
Even the antigovernment, antiliberal oratorical flourish of Pat Robertson, the Virginia Beach television evangelist making a run for the GOP nomination for president, only briefly stirred the crowd of fewer than 1,200 Republicans sitting in the hot University of Virginia basketball arena.
"It's a public relations disaster," said one prominent state Republican leader, who said the party is still reeling from its triple defeat in last year's statewide elections.
"We really didn't have a reason for a convention," said Fairfax state Del. Vincent F. Callahan as he wandered around the 9,000-seat arena, which was devoid of the bunting, balloons and posters of most political conventions.
Party officials had scheduled Vice President Bush as the guest speaker for Saturday night's banquet, but canceled the event a week ago after it became clear that Bush would not attend. Expected attendance for the dinner had plunged from 1,800 to as few as 300 participants.
Several Republicans here said party officials had known weeks earlier that Bush would not attend and had tried unsuccessfully to line up Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt or other stand-ins.
Angry managers of the University Hilton Hotel, where preparations had been made for a large crowd, today were refusing to return the state party's $10,000 deposit, according to party Chairman Donald W. Huffman of Roanoke. Without the refund, the party's major fund-raising event here would either break even or lose money, Huffman said. Hotel room reservations were being canceled by the dozens.
Many delegates began leaving the arena today even before the appearances by the major speakers -- Robertson, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, former secretary of state Alexander Haig and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Signs of strains from the party's stinging losses at the polls last year were everywhere. Few delegates mentioned the name of Wyatt B. Durrette, the losing nominee for governor, who did not attend the weekend session.
Much of the party's attention was focused on a divisive effort by state GOP legislators to obtain more votes on the state central committee. The efforts were rebuffed during a contentious 2 1/2-hour meeting that continued past midnight Friday. Several delegates said it reminded them of the bitter party battles Democrats engaged in during the 1970s.
"We don't want to see the Republican Party catch the disease that almost destroyed the other party," said former state attorney general J. Marshall Coleman, the party's nominee for governor in 1981, whose effort to run for lieutenant governor last year was defeated by conservatives.
"Some of the fervor expressed by one Republican against another would be better spent against the Democrats," said Coleman, who worked the hallways of the hotel and basketball arena in anticipation of what many say will be another try for public office in 1989.
Huffman, clearly weary from the infighting that has dogged the party for months, dismissed rumors that he may be considering quitting.
"I will say it's the kind of job that burns you out," said Huffman, the party's chairman since late 1983. "But I'm not contemplating resigning."
During the Friday night central committee meeting, even attempts to turn attacks on the Democrats failed to go off smoothly.
Some officials were hawking $5 cassette tapes of radio advertisements promoting the party, but one of the tapes, dealing with ethics of public officials, proved inaudible. Huffman wryly suggested it could be sold for $1.98.
After the hours of procedural disputes, roll call votes and debate over rule changes, political analyst Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia joked that the motto of the convention should be, "If it's broke, don't fix it."
State Del. Frank Hargrove (R-Hanover), who heads a GOP committee on candidate recruitment, warned Friday night that "the image of the Republican Party of Virginia has to be improved."
A short time later, Hargrove's car was struck by a tractor-trailer on Va. Rte. 29, sending the legislator to the University of Virginia hospital. Hargrove was released tonight after being treated for several cracked ribs and other minor injuries.