When Charles S. (Chuck) Robb swept to victory in the Virginia lieutenant governor's race two years ago, carrying all of the state's 10 congressional districts, Virginia Democrats anointed him their hope of the future.
Wealthy, attractive, photogenic husband of the late Lyndon Johnson's daughter Lynda Bird -- Chuck Robb had the same star quality as Bill Bradley, Jerry Brown, John Warner and other celebrity candidates. As the only Democratic winner in the 1977 Republican sweep of Virginia's statewide officers, he seemed the natural choice to recapture the governship in 1981 and become a major national figure.
Today, however, Virginia Democrats of varying philosophical stripes are having second thoughts. One prominent party member privately calls the boyish 40-year-old Robb "a potential disaster." Another says he is "remote -- people don't know what he stands for or if he stands for anthing." Several compare him to a fellow Democrat who recently lost two consecutive bids for statewide office.
The party's liberal wing has blasted Robb openly for refusing to take strong public stands and for appearing to align himself with the administration of conservative Republican Gov. John N. Dalton, who cannot succeed himself in 1981.
"He [Robb] has got to take a position on something that's related to state government -- he hasn't so far,' said former Lt. Gov. Henry Howell after a rare public confrontation between Robb and the the liberals two months ago in Charlottesville.
In a less public, though equally demaging, manner, conservative Democrats also are questioning Robb's political copentence. Interviews with a half dozen politicians and strategists closely identified with the party's conservative wing indicate they have similar doubts.
"Chuck has realized and accepted how conservative Virginia is," says Larry Sabato, a highly respected University of Virginia political scientist. "Where he's gone wrong is in assuming that he can't afford to speak out on anything."
"There's a feeling Chuck hasn't paid his dues," says one leading conservative Democratic legislator. "His links are closer to the White House than to Richmond -- that won't help him understand Virginia."
Robb, who reguse to say publicly whether he will run for governor, acknowledges much of the criticism although he disputes how widespread it is. He and his staff say he is doing what comes naturally: working quietly behind the scenes, mediating between warring party factions, not overstepping the bounds of his largely ceremonial $16,000-a-year post.
Indeed, Chuck Robb is proud that he avoids one of a politician's most basic ploys: making news.
"I make a deliberating attempt not to be too quotable," Robb said in a recent interview in his Richmond office. "I find it difficult to give simplistic answers to complicated questions."
Robb rode his superior name recognition, strong financial backing and conservative support to a relatively easy victory over two lesser-known Democratic opponents to get the party's lieutenant governor's nomination in 1977, and then won the fall election with 54 percent of the vote.
Thus Robb, a McLean lawyer, became Virginia's lone Democratic statewide officeholder and the first Northern Virginian to hold one of the state government's top three offices in this century. But his image as a winner has begun to fade, at least in the eyes of the state's political professionals.
One problem is Robb's close identification with Dalton. He attends the governor's cabinet meetings, stands silently by Dalton at numerous press conference and public meetings and refuses to speak out publicly against a man whom Robb candidly admits he in many ways admires.
"I think in terms of the management of state government that he [Dalton] has done a commendable job," Robb says.
Other than the Equal Rights Amendment, which the lieutenant governor supports and Dalton opposes, Robb spokesman Laurie Naisman is hard pressed to come up with a single issue on which her boss and the governor disagree.
Robb does a little better, citing his support last year for legislation that would have allowed Northern Virginia localities to fund the Metrorail system through an increase in the state sales tax -- a concept Dalton opposes. Robb also complains that Dalton was slow to realize the seriousness of the Northern Virginia's gasoline shortage last summer.
Robb says he prefers to keep his disagreements with the governor private and low-key, an approach that does not sit well with many Democrats.
"A lot of people are upset seeing him with that crowd," says former state senator George Rawlings, a party liberal. "Some people think he's part of the administration, that he hasn't let it be known where he differs with him."
Dalton press aide Paul G. Edwards says the governor appreciates Robb's cooperation and deference, although Edwards and other Republicans are quick to criticize Robb's political acumen. They also like to note that Robb has contributed virtually nothing of substance during his two years of attending cabinet meetings.
"Chuck's a nice guy," says one GOP operative. "He's warm, he's personable, he's deferential to his elders. In fact, he's the perfect son-in-law. But we don't think he's got the savvy or the skills to get elected governor."
Robb's most likely GOP apponent in 1981 is state Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman 37, a gifted politician who uses all the strategems that Robb prefers to avoid. Coleman seems constantly in the headlines taking strong, indentifiable stands on issues like sentencing of felons, gasohol and nuclear power. Many Republicans -- and some Democrats -- believe Coleman will chew Robb up when the real campaign begins.
Robb is up against not only Coleman but the superior organization and financing that Republicans have enjoyed in recent years. That is why, although two years remain until the election, Democrats are attempting to raise money and line up supporters now.
Still, political strategists say Robb and his wife will have to dip heavily into their personal fortune -- estimated at $743,000 two years ago, and a figure Robb says remains roughly accurate -- in order to run.
It is clear that Robb and his backers hope to beat Coleman in part of appealing to old-line conservatives who are clearly uncomfortable with the activist image Coleman has made for himself.
"A lot of people think of Marshall Coleman as the Republican Henry Howell," says H. Benson Dendy III of Robb's staff.
Robb has courted the state's business establishment through frequent appearances at local chambers of commerce has taken an active role in efforts to attract new new business and tourism to the state. But he has proved less apt politically in attracting conservative support.
His worst gaffe came ironically on the one occasion when he took a strong stand on an issue -- the controversy between President Carter and Independent Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. over four new judgeships.
Robb publicly supported Byrd, saying that Carter should pick the judges from the list of 10 white males that two Byrd advisory committees had submitted. But later the White House leaked the fact that Robb had agreed to act as a go-between in offering one of the posts to Henry Marsh, Richmond's black mayor.
Robb's perceived waffling alienated a number of Byrd-style conservatives as well as a sizable number of blacks crucial to any hope of Democratic victory in Virginia. Black Democratic leaders say any black voters may vote for Coleman or not vote at all in 1981
"Blacks have other places they can go," says L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond, the only black in the state Senate. "Hell, we can go fishing."
The judgeship episode also chilled relations between Robb and the Carter administration, with the Virginian complaining publicly that the White House had let him be "skewered and barbecued" on the issue.
Relations have improved since Robb's wife heads the presidents Advisory Committee for Women. Robb last week endorsed Carter for reelection and got the new speaker of the Virginia House, A.L. Philpott, to do the same, although both endorsements were less than enthusiastic. Virginia was the only southern state Carter failed to carry in 1976 and may observers suspect he may do considerably worse there in 1980 should he get the nomination.
One indication of Robb's growing problems is that both his supporters and detractors are beginning to compare him to Andrew P. Miller, the rising young Democratic attorney general whose political career collasped after his 1977 campaign for governor and 1978 run for U.S. senator went down to defeat.
Miller's people claim he was sabotaged by liberal Democrats who refused to wholeheartedly back the moderate-conservative ex-attorney general. But liberals and many professional contend it was Miller's inability to talk identifiable positions that helped sink him. They see the same failing in Robb.
"It's going to take a real effort Chuck and his people to turn around," says Sabato. "Otherwise, the Andy Miller syndrome is very posible."
Still, no Democrat is willing to totally write off Chuck Robb. Many believe that for all his potential liabilities, he is their only viable candidate. He certainly is their only political celebrity with star quality.
That quality was on display at Chamber of Commerce reception last week in Richmond. As Robb arrive he was surrounded by women who took turns posing for pictures with him. Older ones kissed him. Younger ones stared. They asked after Lynda and his three daughters. through all, Robb moved easily with a broad smile he seldom flashes in private conversation.
"Chuck created a lot of excitement in '77," says Robert Watson, who helps run state Democratic head quarters in Richmond. "This may be a difficult period for him, but he' create a lot more excitement in '81.