One morning more than two years ago, Richmond attorney Stephen E. Baril was sitting at breakfast at an exclusive country club with a group of lawyers and business people. The conversation, he recalled recently, turned to Republican politics.
Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore would be running for governor, but the group couldn't think of a logical candidate to run to replace him. So, Baril said, they started talking about the kind of person they would want: Someone intimately familiar with the law and the inside of a courtroom. Someone from a good law firm, with a good family background. Someone, Baril said he realized as the breakfast wore on, a little like himself.
Baril, 50, had never held elected office, but he realized he was being drafted for a statewide run. Only later did he learn that he would face Del. Robert F. McDonnell (Virginia Beach), a 14-year veteran of the General Assembly who is being backed by most of his fellow Republican lawmakers and a boatload of GOP commonwealth's attorneys and sheriffs.
The primary will take place Tuesday. Whichever Republican wins will face Democratic Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), who is unopposed for his party's nomination, in the general election Nov. 8.
Baril, whose only prior political campaign was a brief run in a House of Delegates primary in 1997, has gained a foothold with other lawyers and members of the business community like those with whom he had breakfast that morning. His allies say his 24 years as a practicing lawyer -- he lost count of the jury trials he had conducted years ago when the number hit 50 -- gives him more relevant experience to be the state's top attorney and manage an office with more than 200 lawyers and staff members.
"He's got a good understanding of what an attorney general does," said W. Coleman Allen Jr., a partner at Allen, Allen, Allen and Allen P.C., a 95-year-old Richmond-based law firm. "I can't recall another figure in the Richmond legal community that has enjoyed as strong and universal support."
The result has been an explosive fundraising effort against an opponent with far better name recognition among longtime Republicans. Leesburg lawyer Robert M. Gordon said Baril has been gathering support from business community members looking for a candidate more concerned with transportation and limited government rather than one with strict conservative credentials.
"I think many business people are concerned about the appeals to Republican voters to vote solely based on social issues and absolute rejection of any possible tax increases, even if it's to fund transportation," said Gordon, a Republican who ran for chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors in 2003. "I think voters are looking for more pragmatic candidates than you see in that appeal to conservative Republicans."
Whether Baril's support extends far enough beyond Main Street Richmond to win, however, is an open question. According to McDonnell, active Republicans likely to come out for a June primary election are strongly in his corner. Many of McDonnell's supporters argue that the former prosecutor and Army officer is better qualified after years in state government for a job that is often a steppingstone to the governor's mansion. McDonnell points to a list of dozens of elected leaders, as well as conservative groups, that are backing his bid.
"It takes two things to win: It takes money, and it takes grass-roots support," he said. "We're about even in money, and he has virtually no grass-roots support outside Richmond."
Baril has attempted to appeal to the business community with a plan to spend $1 billion a year in the next decade on transportation. He has also suggested expanding drug courts, to include faith-based rehabilitation programs for addicts. And he has advocated hiring 100 more state police officers.
That plan, he said, was inspired by memories of his stepfather, a police officer for 35 years. Baril recalled that, as a boy growing up in Chesterfield County, he would sometimes sit in his stepfather's patrol car listening to the radio when the stepfather would stop home for dinner. If anything important flashed, Baril's job was to sprint from the car and rouse him from the dinner table.
He learned then that harsh sentences and law enforcement conferences on gangs are important, he said, but that officers on the street are critical to stopping crimes.
"You have got to put well-equipped, well-trained police officers out there to do the hard work," he said.
The first in his family to go to college, Baril graduated from Hampden-Sydney College and the University of Richmond law school. He said his interest in politics was sparked by U.S. District Judge D. Dortch Warriner, for whom he clerked in 1980, who convinced him that ordinary people should run for office. He has also been publicizing his connection to another important state Republican, the late governor John N. Dalton -- whose daughter is Baril's wife.
"I've told her we would run a campaign in the Dalton tradition," Baril said, "one that he would be proud of."