The candidates are young, attractive, conservative politicians who will raise millions of dollars. The campaigns will be high-technology and media-oriented affairs emphasizing software over foot soldiers and images over issues, with imported name-brand professionals to help guide them.
Welcome to Virginia politics 1981. Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, 41, the Democrat, and Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, 38, the Republican, formally launch their candidacies in the coming week and begin a contest for the gray Governor's Mansion here -- a campaign that promises to be close, expensive and strikingly different from any in the state's history.
The political landscape in Virginia, which once seemed so foreign to outsiders, has begun to look familiar. For, as GOP Gov. John N. Dalton likes to point out, what happened here over the last decade -- the coming to power of conservative Republicanism -- is replacing itself all over the nation.
And because this is the locale for one of only two statewide elections in the nation this year (the other is the New Jersey governorship), the result inevitably will not be scrutinized as a referendum on the first year of the Reagan administration or, as Coleman adviser William Royall prefers to think of it, "Virginia-style politics gone to Washington."
Likewise, the target of high-hype candidates in late 20th Century Virginia has switched from the business-oriented sons and daughters of the Confederacy to those new mandarins of American political power, the independent suburban voters.
Some of the changes bode well for Robb, a laywer from McLean.As the annointed Democratic nominee, he faces no bloody primary as did his predecessor. Also, unlike earlier Democratic candidates, Robb has succeeded in making heavy inroads into the business community and will have the money to go even-up against his opponent. And as Lyndon Johnson's son-in-law, Robb has the same intangible star quality that helped elect Kentucky's John Y. Brown, Virginia's John W. Warner and New Jersey's Bill Bradley -- and helped cut California's Ronald Reagan in the White House.
But Coleman has command of the Virginia Republican Party, considered by many the most efficient, proven vote-getting state machine in the nation, which has denied the Democrats a victory in major races -- for governor, U.S. Senate and presidential candidates -- for the past 15 years. He also has an aggressively partisan ally in Gov. Dalton, who cannot succeed himself, and can count on support from the Reagan administration.
Both sides have a lot to lose. Virginia Democats must break their long losing streak or, according to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, face another "decade of disaster." And many national Democrats, who see Robb's right-of-center approach as one possible way to sway an increasingly conservative electorate, view the contest as a measure of their own political health.
But Virginia GOP Chairman Alfred B. Cramer calls 1981 a "watershed year" for his party as well. To assure that the Coleman campaign takes maximum advantage of its friends in the White House, it has secured a letter of endosement from the president and lined up campaign appearances by Vice President Bush, Budget Director David A. Stockman and Treasury Secretary Donald Regan.
"It's not just hype. If we don't win, it jeopardizes everything we've accomplished," says John Alderson, who ran Reagan's Virginia campaign last year. "Remember that when Linwood Holton won in 1969 [the first Republican ever elected Virginia governor], the Democrats said 'Well, it's only four years.' But four years has turned into 12."
Both candidates believe that the key to success lies to the right.
Coleman's self-portrait will emphasize his Republicanism and his conservatism and depict him as the rightful heir of 12 years of successful GOP rule.
To stress Coleman's righter-than-Robb credentials, the latest edition of The Virginia Republican, a party publication, reports that "the 'moderate' image being pinned on him [Coleman] is a bum rap."
While "the tone, if not the substance, of [Robb's] campaign is expected to be conservative," the GOP newsletter goes on, "the fact remains, however, that J. Marshall Coleman is the real thing; Charles Robb is the carbon copy."
But Robb's strategists say they intend to prove their man is the true heir of the Virginia tradition of "responsible" (i.e., conservative) government. The unspoken companion message is that Coleman is too aggressive and too much of an activist to be trusted.
The winner will be the candidate who sells his message best in the suburbs where, although the trend has been Republican, both Coleman and Robb won big in 1977. In his home base of Northern Virginia, for example, Robb took 55 percent of the vote against an unknown and underfinanced Reaganite conservative in the lieutenant governor's race. As the attorney general nominee, Coleman led the GOP ticket, getting more than 60 percent of the vote in swamping an equally unknown conservative Democrat who refused to renounce his segregationist past. u
In recognition of the importance of the Washington suburbs, both candidates will make opening-day campaign appearances in the Tysons Corner area: Coleman on Monday and Robb on Thursday.
While they have been successful in appealing to independent suburbanites, both men face problems with groups that have been an important part of their parties' power bases. Coleman has not made peace with some elements of the "Main Street" business leaders centerd in Richmond, who traditionally account for roughly 40 percent of the funds raised by Virginia conservatives. He also has problems with the New Right and born-again conservatives who constitute one segment of the GOP's base.
Robb has similar problems with his party's liberal constituency, which for years backed Norfolk populist Henry E. Howell. Some of the Howell people have enlisted the Robb's cause, but Howell himself said that Robb "does not want me to work for him."
Howell concedes that Robb may be justified in not consulting him, considering that Howell failed in three bids for the governorship, but not being consulted suits him fine. Howell, a former lieutenant governor, warns that Robb is moving the party "back to the stand-pat government we had for a century after the War Between the States." s
Neither the New Right Republicans nor Howell Democrats posses enough votes to elect candidates, but both groups can provide the precinct workers, envelope-stuffers and door-to-door campaigners that can be crucial in a close race. Given the GOP's pronounced advantage in such organizatinal areas as direct mail lists, phone banks and the other trappings of 1980s politics, many observers believe Robb is taking the bigger gamble.
"Basically, he's going against the grain of what the Democatic Party has stood for in modern times," says liberal strategist Paul Goldman, a former Howell adviser. "It's a high-risk strategy, because you risk losing your base."
Both Robb and Coleman will attempt to compensate for those alienated grassroots supporters by turning to another moderan political tool: the media.
When it comes to employing experts, "it's going to be the big boys versus the big boys," observes Chris Spanos, a consultant to Democratic lieutentant governor hopeful Richard (Dick) Davis.
Howell snipes that Robb is attempting to emulate the success of Kentucky's Gov. Brown, the Kentucy-Fried -Chicken king.
"They both have the same guy, [media consultant] Bob Squier, both have plenty of money and where John Y had a Miss America [Phyllis George], Chuck has the daughter of a president," snipped Howell.
In addition to Squier, Robb's team includes David Doak as campaign manager, and Peter D. Hart Associates for polling. Doak's most recent effort was directing the Carter campaign in Maryland, one of only five states the Democratic ticket carried.
Coleman's advisors include pollster Richard Wirthlin, who worked for the Reagan-Bush ticket, and Bailey, Deardourff & Associates, a political consulting firm whose Republican clients won 11 of 12 races last year, including governorships in Missouri, Indiana and Delaware, and Rep. Stanford E. Parris in Northern Virginia's 8th District.
A big media campaign require big money, and both sides are planning budgets of at least $2 million. But workers in both camps say the total could balloon once each side sees what the other is spending -- espeically for Washington-area television, which is the key to reaching vote-laden Northern Virginia.
Because both Coleman and Robb will be nominated at party conventions, they are not required to file financial statements until mid-October. But both sides already are leaking tales of fund-raising successes, with sources intimating that Coleman has about $200,000 in the bank and Robb is approaching $500,000.
One incident in the quest for money demonstrates just how tight this contest could be. In January, during the legislative session, Robb and the leaders of Democratic-dominated General Assembly took a night off to jet 300 miles southwest to Bristol, in the heart of coal country. There they met privately with leading coal mine operators and won pledges reputedly totaling $250,000, much of it from people who had supported Dalton four years earlier.
When Dalton learned of the secret meeting several weeks later, he exploded in anger and began furiously calling the same operators to produce donations for Coleman. The result: A private gathering in the Governor's Mansion late last month that raised a reported $300,000. The guest of honor was Energy Secretary James Edwards.
The coal shakedown shows just how strong Robb can be when doing the quiet, behind-the-scenes work his supporters say he excels at. But it also shows Coleman's ability to recoup, thanks to his powerful GOP allies in the state capitol and the White House.
With issues being blurred by similar appeals from two handsome, rich, conservative candidates, "by fall," says political scientist Sabato, "it may be tough to distinguish between these two -- we'll be slipping into calling them Chuck Coleman and Marshall Robb."
Liberal strategist Goldman believes that "one or two moves, or mistakes, on either side could make the differene. It's handicappers' dream."