Downstate Republicans got a lesson in the perils of personal politics when they used a live call-in show to confront Democratic Del. Barnie K. Day (Patrick) on reports that he has Parkinson's disease.

He does, Day quickly acknowledged on the show, but the backlash against outing his medical condition on live television may have won him more votes than the news cost him. Republicans in Richmond, who pride themselves on slick campaign strategy, collectively winced.

Day, 46, has emerged as one of the more colorful and influential Democrats in the legislature over the last couple of years. He is best known for folksy speeches delivered on the House floor about a semi-fictional downstate character named "Cornbread Marshall" who acts as a stand-in for common sense and the working-class values Democrats purport to represent.

Parkinson's is a neurological disorder that eventually can lead to paralysis and even premature death, but Day says his case is mild. Medication has kept the symptoms under control, and his doctors have assured him he has a long life ahead of him, Day says.

The news of his condition became public earlier this month when the GOP chairman in Henry County, which is in Day's district, called the live cable television show and said he was concerned about Day's health.

Day then told the audience about his case of Parkinson's and said that it was diagnosed three years ago. He assured voters that it would not affect his ability to carry out his duties as a state delegate.

Since the show, Day has enjoyed favorable press about his handling of the episode. Several Republicans, outraged that one of their own broke the news on the television show, have volunteered to help Day raise money, he says.

The incident may well have doomed the candidacy of Day's GOP challenger, Jonathan Large.

Now Day chides Republicans for their concern about his health. "They're afraid I'm going to live," he said.

A Fast-Moving Issue

Democrats were not as agile when they mailed out a fund-raising letter just a couple weeks back but neglected to mention their hottest issue of the moment: the "transportation crisis."

Although they christened the term and have dubbed Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) "Governor Gridlock," they didn't mention either in the four-page letter. An attached questionnaire asked for top issues, but transportation wasn't one of the choices.

The gaffe showed how quickly some issues catch fire. In the six weeks it took party staff members to draft and circulate the letter, transportation catapulted from a mid-size issue to a dominant one. It was the Democrats who led that push, but its resonance apparently caught even them by surprise.

Party Executive Director Craig Bieber said the purpose of the letter was to generate donations by outraging party faithful. There was talk of "do-nothing Republican majorities" and "right-wing witch-hunts" in Washington and "extremists," but of the transportation crisis there was nary a word.

"I'm sure that as you see the fall heat up, you will see fund-raising letters on transportation," he said.