Nearly 80 of the best strategic minds in the state and national Democratic parties tuned into a conference call the other day for an important pep talk about Chuck Robb's latest fight for his political life.

U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb--former lieutenant governor, former governor, two-term senator after dodging the Oliver North bullet in 1996--didn't even participate in the private conversation Dec. 5, but those who care about his reelection campaign against former governor George Allen (R) in 2000 were on the line.

The headline from the Sunday afternoon conference call--5:30 p.m., for 20 minutes--was, "Folks, this race can indeed be won, so let's get cracking," according to several participants.

"It was an effort to get people moving," said one old hand who has won some and lost some in more than 20 years in state politics. "It was timely. It was smart."

That evening, Robb (D) was in Richmond rallying Democratic troops, but the format of the conference--most folks listening, not talking--allowed five of his close friends to draw what amounts to an 11-month campaign plan for reelection. The conference call was arranged by longtime Robb pal Tim Ridley (deputy campaign manager of the 1981 governor's race) and hosted by state Del. Alan A. Diamonstein, of Newport News, another Robb confidant of long standing.

Robb's wife, Lynda, a daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, told listeners that Robb was not perfect but reminded everyone that no one is. Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, of New Jersey, chairman of the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, also talked about the 2000 race, saying it was essential to the party's national strategy.

Media consultant and campaign adviser David M. Doak, another close associate of Robb's, outlined Allen's vulnerabilities, while pollster and national Democratic consultant Geoffrey Garin, president of the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group in Washington, described Robb's reelection prospects as quite good.

With early polls and campaign finance reports showing Allen coming on strong against an incumbent who sits on the Senate's important Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, some Democrats have been grumbling about Robb's generally low profile across the state.

Robb heard the kvetching, but he has heard it all before, comfortable with a loping campaign pace that suits him even as it frustrates his friends.

At the same time, he is now firing off more news releases to let Democrats across the state know he's actually at work at the Capitol and getting around the Old Dominion.

There was a quick consensus in the Robb camp on two things that should be done immediately: Reestablish contact with the many old-line Robb supporters across the state and figure out creative ways to draw attention to the Robb campaign that don't necessarily involve the candidate himself. One option there, they agreed: Start drawing attention to Allen's extensive record as governor, including the loss of experienced planners and managers at the state Transportation Department during his shrink-the-government tenure.

Survivor of the Changing of the Guard

"I said, 'Thank you,' and he said, 'You're welcome.' "

With that, one of the many subplots of the transition to Republican power in the House of Delegates drew to a close, as incoming speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst) telephoned House Clerk Bruce F. Jamerson to tell him the GOP Caucus had just decided to retain the Democrats' appointee in that job.

For weeks, Wilkins had pursued a quietly deliberate course on personnel decisions as the newly empowered lord of the House. Several older, moderate colleagues had urged him to keep Jamerson to ensure continuity during the transition, even though Jamerson had frustrated Republican efforts to gain a measure of shared power--and respect--after legislative gains two years ago.

Jamerson, who runs a staff of 30, had met with Wilkins during those weeks, but his fate was largely in doubt until the caucus decision.

"It was a nice conversation," Jamerson said this week. "I was hoping I'd get a call, and I got one."

Jamerson said he presumes the House will elect him to a term that coincides with the two years the delegates themselves will have when the General Assembly convenes in mid-January.

Then, he will start one of the toughest jobs in political Richmond, trying to avoid being bushwhacked by his new masters, the Republicans, and his old ones, the Democrats.

Paring Down House Panels

Speaking of Wilkins, several Republican lawmakers and administration officials of Gov. James S. Gilmore III (D) say he is inclined not to consolidate some duplicative House committees (as some House members wanted) but may instead shrink some committees that now have upwards of 30 members.

Shrinking committees could make them more efficient while magnifying GOP power, Republicans say.

They also expect some senior powerful Democrats, such as Diamonstein and C. Richard Cranwell (Roanoke) to get assigned to lesser committees than the important ones where they now serve. Diamonstein has been a House member since 1968, Cranwell since 1972.

GOP Looks at Economy of Voters

The 1999 annual report of the Republican Party of Virginia is warm off the press, and the most interesting page is the last one, on RPV "by the numbers," with factoids about the historic November elections.

The party says it produced and mailed 3 million pieces of mail to targeted legislative districts, at a cost of $1.2 million.

There were 25,000 hits on the party's Web site, www.rpv.org; that site and its companion, www.GOPmajority.com, cost $1,024 to create, the party said.