Joe Fisher stepped to the speakers' podium with deliberate slowness, his gray hair combed back into a gleaming mane, a manila folder clasped in both hands. The question he had been waiting for hung over the audience like a balloon begging to be popped. Fisher was ready to pop it.
"This," he said, pulling a handful of paper from the manila folder, "is a computer printout of Frank Wolf's contributions from organizations."
Pinching the top page between two fingers of one hand, he let the heavy list unfurl to the auditorium floor.
"And this," he said, beaming, "is a printout of my contributions from organizations."
Like fifth-grade show-and-tell, a two-page document dangled from his other hand.
The gesture prompted knee-slapping laughter in the audience of 100 Fairfax County voters. But if Northern Virginia's 10th District Democratic incumbent congressman hoped to prove his independence from special interests, he paid for it with mixed reviews.
"That convinces me," said one middle-aged man to his wife. "Frank Wolf is more organized."
Wolf, the 41-year-old Vienna lawyer and Republican challenger, would like to think that the reaction of this Falls Church audience gathered recently at a local high school signals good things to come. This is the third election in which he has tried to wrest the 10th District seat from his scholarly opponent.
His tireless devotion to the task has won him the admiration of fellow party members. And in this presidential year, the national committee has targeted him as one candidate particularly worthy of extra support.
For Northern Virginians, 1980 could be the Year of the Wolf.
But Joe Fisher, a 65-year-old economist and veteran Arlington politician, remembers tough races. In 1974's post-Watergate election he scored a startling upset over Republican Joel T. Broyhill, who for 22 years had remained comfortable insconced on Capitol Hill. Two years ago, in what local politicians remember as an especially nasty and precedent-setting campaign, Fisher bested Wolf with a 6 percent margin.
Republicans smile at the discontent a mere mention of the Carter administration brings.
Frank Wolf works hard to keep the names Carter and Fisher together on Voters' lips. This week he labeled Fisher "a puppet of the imcumbent president" and blamed him for everything from inflation to unemployment to deteriorating U.S. military strength abroad.
"It's not that we're attacking the other guy," Wolf explained to a gathering of Northern Virginia Republicans at Washington's posh Metropolitan Club. "Joe Fisher is a decent guy. But he just doesn't represent the people of this district."
In his own typically academic style, Fisher attempts to explain away the "liberal big spender" label, tap dancing around his support for the president on some issues, his independence on others.
The success of either man in November will depend largely on his ability to sway large blocks of independent and undecided voters in who are among the country's wealthiest and best educated. Theirs is a district where as many as a third of the 250,000 registered voters work for the federal government -- or are related to someone who does, where newly arrived voters could decide the election and where voters split tickets right down to the bond issues, 7a or 7b.
"Joe Fisher has always known that this seat is not a safe Democratic seat," says former Democratic state Del. Ira Lechner of Arlington. "It's a seat that you have to earn. You can't take it for granted -- ever."
Democrats fret over some disturbing trends. Their strength on local boards and in state delegations has declined steadily. Some Fisher strongholds are beginning to fray around the edges.
"The community is obviously getting older," said Fred Berghoefer, Democratic chief in Arlington, long a source of Fisher strength. "And with that, there's an increasing aversion to taxes of any kind."
Potentially as damaging, however, is the impression among many voters that Jimmy Carter is no friend of the federal employee. Many civil servants still burn over the administration's elimination of free parking spaces, a move recently questioned in the courts. Frank Wolf seldom forgets to remind audiences of the Civil Service Reform Act, a measure Fisher supported and one that, for the first time, makes pay raises for upper-level employes subject to performance ratings.
"If you walk into any agency, you'll find that half the people think it's great and half the people think it's terrible," said one official of the American Federation of Government Employees, the area's largest labor organization.
Despite these mixed feelings, however, many workers remember Fisher as the man who at least delayed administration attempts to take them off their present retirement plans and place them on Social Security.
"My record of support for the president is 82 percent," said Fisher. But to Wolf's charges that he has contributed to inflation, he recalls his attempts to institute across-the-board tax cuts and his proposals for cuts in agriculture, public works and regulatory programs.
"One of [Wolf's] problems is, he wants to run against a certain image of a Democrat," Fisher says. "And here I come along and vote against certain programs."
Fisher recently introduced a bill to require federal payments to local jurisdictions that lose taxes on federally owned property. He is also pushing his own $26.5 billion tax cut bill, which he says is "better than the Senate's [Kemp-Roth measure], better than Gov. Reagan's and better than Carter's."
Wolf, a former undersecretary of the Interior Department, congressional aide and, more recently, baby food lobbyist, has shied away from the proposed $39 billion Kemp-Roth tax cut, part of the the proposed $39 billion Kemp-Roth tax cut, part of the platform his party's standard bearer has endorsed. And to Ronald Reagan's proposed 30 percent cut in government programs, Wolf says his would be closer to 10 percent. He declines to say where he would cut first.
"The problem is," he explains, "we don't have enough Republicans in Congress. This Congress has just run willy-nilly over the Republicans. We have to have a balanced budget as a goal." Regarded by many in the party as more conservative than most, Wolf has drawn fire from Virginia women's groups for his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. He favors a constitutional amendment banning abortions.
Wolf enjoys financial support from around the country. Many businessmen and special interest groups would love dearly to get Fisher off the House Ways and Means Committee, where he is widely respected for his economic expertise.
Wolf, who outspent Fisher nearly two-to-one in 1978, and who introduced television advertising to Northern Virginia politics, lists among his contributors nearly a dozen oil companies, several utilities, two automobile manufacturers and Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in Lynchburg.
With $1,000 from the Republican National Committee and $8,000 from the Republican National Congressional Committee, Wolf's campaign coffers swell with more than $310,000 in contributions, including $100,000 already spent in a hard-fought primary. He expects to spend $350,000, nearly a third of it on TV promotions. Fisher, who will appear in television ads for the first time this year, has raised $162,000 thus far of an expected $210,000, with $50,000 budgeted for TV air time.
Party leaders see exposure as a problem for both candidates. It's harder to make news back home when back home is only five miles away.
"That fact that the two major dailies are focusing on national news makes it much more difficult for a congressional challenger to get his fair share of attention," said Fairfax County GOP Chairman Bill Olsen.
"The biggest challenge [Fisher] has is to communicate to a very mobile population his record with respect to federal employes," echoed Democratic insider Lechner. "I think if anybody knew what his record was, they'd have no problem voting for him. But how many new people don't know about that? How many new people know he came on the House Ways and Means Committee almost as a senior member, which is practically unheard of?"
For five years, Wolf has attempted to span the media gap and make a name for himself through sheer determination and lots of money. He stepped into this void wearing running shoes, and few races have seen a candidate pursue the elusive voter with such unabashed verve.
"Non-incumbents often complain of the advantages of the imcumbency," lamented Dottie Schick, Fairfax County Democratic party chairman. "But one of the things the incumbent doesn't have is the time to campaign. Frank is always available."
It may be paying off. Canvassing last weekend by Republican party precinct workers found Wolf ahead of Fisher nearly five-to-two in Dranesville, whose 38,000 registered voters are traditional Wolf supporters.
In some areas, Wolf has managed to keep Fisher on the defensive. Fisher brushes aside Wolf's constant complaining about the advantages of the incumbency, saying, "I ran against a 22-year incumbent, and you never heard me whine about it."
But when Fisher holds a list of Wolf's contributors to the campaign spotlight, Wolf charges right back. "You just said you're not complaining," he said at the Falls Church gathering. "But you're almost crying." CAPTION: Picture 1, REPUBLICAN FRANK WOLF . . . $310,000 in contributions; Picture 2, DEMOCRAT JOE FISHER . . . a communications problem