A Republican backlash appeared to be developing in Virginia yesterday against the possible selection Saturday of former Navy Secretary John Warner to be the party's new nominee for the U.S. Senate.
Party leaders who last week reluctantly tagged Warner as the most logical successor to the late Richard D. Obensham, were searching with renewed vigor yesterday for a more conservative alternative.
Several names including that of Rep. M. Caldwell Butler of Roanoke emerged as possible choices for the GOP State Central Committee, which will meet at 2 p.m. Saturday to choose Obenshain's replacement.
Obenshain, a former state party chairman and former cochairman of the GOP National Committee, died last Wednesday in a light plane crash near Richmond.
He was running against Democrat Andrew P. Miller, a former state attorney general, for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. William L. Scott.
Several prominent Republicans, including members of the State Central Committee, confirmed reports yesterday that a coalition of business and professional leaders active in Obenshain's campaign were unhappy with Warner and were pressuring other state officeholders to make the race.
Three members of the group - Obenshain campaign chairman Judy Peachee, former Del. Roy Smith of Petersburg and retired insurance executive J. Smith Fereebee of Richmond - reportedly traveled to Suffolk Friday to implore former governor Mills E. Godwin to run.
Godwin, who left later the same day for two weeks in Austria, was not encouraging, however, and reportedly told the group he could conceive of no possibility that would lead him out of retirement.
The group had also approached Rep. J. Kenneth Robinson of Winchester, also without success, and then approached Butler.
The Roanoke congressman apparently won favor with Obenshain supporters by helping run Obenshain's campaign at the GOP state convention last June. Butler, however, said he has "not seriously considered running" and said if telephone calls were being made on his behalf it was neither at his suggestion nor with his knowledge.
State party chairman George McMath, in formally announcing the State Central Committee meeting yesterday, said others under consideration included State Sen. Nathan Miller, former Del. Wyatte Durrette of Fairfax and former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson.
"I don't even know Richardson lived in Virginia, but apparently he does," said McMath, who was understood to be considering the race himself.
Warner, meanwhile, said he had sent out wires to 250 supporters asking them to work to preserve the coalition and party unity that had moved the Obenshain campaign forward.
He said he planned to meet with Virginia Gov. John Dalton and with Obenshain campaign officials in Richmond today and would "make a decision sometime in midweek about whether to permit my name to be placed before the committee."
Asked if he could conceive of any situation in which he wouldn't permit his name to be placed before the committee, Warner replied, "I don't think I want to go beyond my statement at this time."
Warner said he had been "heartened by the free flow of information within the party and had been "fully informed of the interest in other candidates" which he described as a "healthy thing."
"The essential thing for all of us," he said, "is to preserve the coalition and the party unity which Dick Obenshain put together."
Party officials had earlier voiced fears that only Warner, who finished a dose second to Obsenshain in the June convention would be able to provide the financing and organization ecessary to field a wining campaign this late in the summer.
Yesterday, however, several said they felt that financial sources in the natural GOP, together with major contributors among the business leaders represented by Smith, Peachee and Ferrebee, might go a long way toward meeting financial needs.
Most of those contacted yesterday said their reservations about Warner were not personal but centered largely on his lack of previous experience in the state GOP and the fear that he was not a bona fide conservative.
They emphasized that the renewed search for candidates reflected no real change in sentiment but simply an increased ability by party leaders to think and act in the waning shock of Obenshain's death.
Butler, a bespectacled lawyer, won nationwide attention four years ago as a member of the House Judiciary Committee voting to impeach former President Richard Nixon.
Comp aring Watergate to the "Trumanism" he had once attacked as a young Republican candidate in the early 1950s, he told a nationally televised audience that "Watergate is our shame . . . and I will not stand for it."
He is unopposed for reelection this year and should he decide to run for the Senate, Democrats apparently would not be able to reconsider and run a candidate.
Joan Mahan secretary of the State Board of Elections, said Virginia law provides for the selection of a new candidate only for that party whose original candidate cannot run for an exceptional reason.
Obenshain's death, she said, would meet this criterion and permit 6th District Republicans to select a new candidate if Butler were the choice to replace him.
But 6th District Democrats would be prevented by existing law from entering the race.
"I'm sure the Democrats would go to court on this and I feel they would probably win," Mahan said.