President Carter's reelection campaign effort in Virginia is depending on the same group of mainly moderate and conservative Democratic Party officials who supported him when he lost the state in the 1976 election.
The group of state cochairmen for the Carter steering committee in Virginia that was announced yesterday includes Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, State Party Chairman and Portsmouth Mayor Richard J. Davis, former U.S. senator William Spong, former lieutenant governor Henry Howell, House of Delegates Speaker A. L. Philpott and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors member Sandra Duckworth.
ROBERT S. Strauss, national chairman of the Carter/Mondale reelection committee, made the announcement in Alexandria yesterday. He added that all 10 Virginia Democratic Party district chairmen had agreed to serve as Carter's district coordinators, "the first time" that the party machinery had so "unanimously' supported a candidate.
Ernest S. Kessler, Virginia chairman of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's presidential campaign, shrugged off the significance of the announcement. "Virginia party leaders have a long and distinguished history of being wrong. They supported (Sen. Edmund S.) Muskie in 1972 and (Sen. Lloyd) Bentsen in 1976. What really counts is who can get the troops out to the mass meetings on March 22," he said.
Under the political procedure in Virginia, the mass meetings in March will begin a long and complex process by which the state's 64 delegates to the national Democratic Convention in New York next August are chosen.
In 1976, Carter lost Virginia to then-president Gerald R. Ford by a 49-to-51 percent margin. After a bitter Democratic primary campaign, Carter had gone to the national convention with 23 Virginia delegates committed to him although there also were 24 uncommitted delegates and seven backing Arizona Rep. Morris Udall.
Yesterday Carter's state coordinator, George Gilliam, claimed that "a solid base of stable support" had developed for Carter in Virginia. He attributed this to the president's performance in office as well as the significance to Northern Virginia voters of his support for Metrorail funding.
In contrast to the Carter campaign organization in Maryland, which is supported by party chieftains from Baltimore and reformist politicians from Montgomery County, the list of backers announced yesterday includes mainly leaders from the moderate wing of the party.
In addition to steering committee cochairmen Robb, Davis, Spong, Howell, Philpott, and Duckworth, other cochairmen are Louise Cunningham of Norfolk and Jessie Rattley of Newport News, the only black in the group.
Rattley and Cunningham are vice chairmen of the state Democratic Party.
Such a list of party officials was seen as encouraging news to at least one Kennedy backer yesterday. "That's the establishment of the party," said George C. Rawlings, a liberal Democrat and member of the Kennedy executive committee in Virginia. "But to win elections you need energetic workers, movers and shakers, not just" party officials, he claimed.