Both Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) and George Allen (R) have turned to political veterans with solid experience in statewide campaigns to manage their fight in Virginia's U.S. Senate race next year.

Robb, a two-term incumbent, has tapped James F. Mulhall, 42, who has roots in Nevada's Democratic establishment, to manage the battle royal against Allen, a popular politician known for a staunchly conservative agenda while governor during the mid-1990s.

Mulhall is the latest link in Robb's organizational structure to fall in place (not a moment too soon, say many Democrats), and he'll begin his duties in the new year.

Meanwhile, Allen called up comrades from his 1993 race for governor and the 1997 election that sent Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) to the Executive Mansion.

Ray Allen Jr., an architect of the GOP's takeover of the General Assembly, will be his chief consultant; J. Kenneth Klinge, of Alexandria, a 30-year veteran of GOP campaigns, will be senior adviser; Greg Stevens and John McLaughlin, two other pros, will handle media and polling, respectively.

The Allen team "represents some of the most successful and respected political talent anywhere," said Del. Paul C. Harris (Charlottesville), the legislature's only African American member of the GOP.

The Robb-Mulhall negotiations lasted about a month, as the senator's Democratic team searched for an experienced manager with at least one extra dimension: a proven ability to work with news organizations, in this case the Capitol press corps in Richmond and its counterparts across the state, as well as out-of-town journalists who will descend on Virginia for a race that will be watched nationally.

Robb's honeymoon with the news media lasted, oh, about two seconds when he was an effective governor in a Democrat-controlled state during the early 1980s, and it soured badly later amid reports of extramarital gallivanting, stories he did not handle deftly.

The Allen-Robb contest already is shaping up as expensive ($10 million apiece) and colorful (son of a great Washington Redskins coach confronts son-in-law of LBJ).

Mulhall is a George Washington University graduate who grew up on Long Island and in New England; he cut his teeth on then-Vice President Walter Mondale's presidential campaign as an advance man.

He was press secretary to Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) during the late 1980s and served as a senior staffer for Rep. James H. Bilbray (D-Nev.). He later joined the staffs of Gov. Bob Miller (D-Nev.), as chief of staff when Miller ran the National Governors Association, and Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), handling news media relations and Bryan's 1994 reelection campaign.

Most recently, Mulhall has worked for the Nevada Resort Association, the big Las Vegas casino advocacy group.

A resident of Annandale, Alexandria and Arlington County during his years on the Hill, Mulhall said he loves the rough-and-tumble of campaigns and the give-and-take with reporters who cover them.

"I've spent my entire life talking to you guys," he said with a laugh. "I love campaigning, the public debate. I love the to-and-fro."

Putting Robb Where He Belongs

Speaking of Sen. Charles S. Robb (D), his eagle-eyed press secretary, John J. DiBiase, caught an error in a recent Notebook item about an 80-person conference call that Robb's office held to plot 2000 strategy.

As reported, Robb does indeed serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee but not on Foreign Relations. Better yet, he's got a spot on Finance, traditionally a prime source for reelection bucks.

In Search of Choice Committees

Committee assignments matter to legislators like Robb--and to state lawmakers who travel to his old stomping grounds in Richmond.

Not only do they put a politician in direct contact with industry lobbyists who may later contribute to campaigns but they often reflect the personal and policy interests of an elected official and, in the case of money committees such as appropriations or finance, can mean substantial dollars for public works and programs back home.

Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax) is typical. A freshly minted state senator, she coveted a slot on the Education Committee to tend to what is probably the premier public issue for her constituents. But, with a Republican majority now firmly in control, the 8 to 7 partisan split on the committee has teetered in favor of the GOP.

So, a frustrated Puller said the other day, she may have to settle for her second choice--Transportation--or the more obscure General Laws.

"I wasn't sure even who to write to," Puller said gamely the other day. "So I wrote to everybody."

Despite Bruising Battle, Amiable Ending

Jane H. Woods (R), who waged a bruising but losing battle to hold her state Senate seat from Fairfax County, left office on a gracious note.

After a recount confirmed the whisker-thin victory by former delegate Leslie L. Byrne (D), Woods wished her well and saluted voters in her home district, the 34th senatorial. "This is a special place," Woods said.

Gilmores to Open House for the Holiday

Finally, a bit of holiday cheer from Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) and his wife, Roxane, who have just moved back to their official mansion residence with their two sons after it underwent a six-month, $7 million renovation. The Gilmores are hosting an open house at the 1813 home from 2 to 6 p.m. New Year's Day.

There are still paintings, chandeliers and some furniture to install--the Gilmores announced the event last week as carpenters sawed away outside the mansion--but visitors still will enjoy the meticulous restoration. A word of caution: Don't perch on the antique four-seater settee just inside the front door. Too rickety.

More information about the open house may be obtained by calling 804-371-2642.