After nearly eight months of campaigning as cautious conservatives, the Virginia Democratic ticket headed by gubernatorial candidate Charles S. Robb wound up the campaign yesterday sounding like Democrats of old, praising former party leaders including Robb's late father-in-law, former president Lyndon B. Johnson, and denouncing Republicans up to and including President Reagan.
Robb and the rival Republican ticket headed by gubernatorial nominee J. Marshall Coleman crossed paths in the coal country town of Clintwood, the traditional concluding point for statewide campaigns. While the Democrats were invoking their party tradition, Coleman sought to remind a large partisan audience of Virginia's history of support for the GOP.
He criticized Robb for campaigning for a string of Democratic candidates "to whom the people of Virginia have said no," which Coleman said included former president Jimmy Carter, 1977 gubernatorial candidate Henry Howell, and 1978 U.S. Senate nominee Andrew Miller. "And the people of Virginia are going to say no again to Robb on Tuesday," Coleman said.
At rallies in three southwestern Virginia counties that gave pluralities to Carter a year ago, and which included local labor leaders and independent coal entrepreneurs, Robb yesterday ridiculed Coleman's contention that he "made it on his own."
If that is so, Robb asked, "why does he keep bringing in the president, vice president, Senate majority leader" and other outsiders to boost his campaign. "We can't make it on our own," Robb told a crowd of 250 at Grundy High School. "We need your help."
Like the Democrats, all three members of the Republican ticket campaigned together yesterday, although Coleman managed to leave the stage in both Clintwood and Grundy without either mentioning the name of or hearing the speech by his running mate for lieutenant governor, Nathan Miller.
Coleman later explained that it was "scheduling difficulties" rather than any desire to separate himself from Miller that kept the two men apart.
Miller, trailing badly in the latest poll by The Washington Post after news stories about alleged conflicts of interest, was defended during yesterday's rallies by Rep. William C. Wampler (R-Va.) who told the GOP rally at Grundy that "I'm going to vote for this man."
Meanwhile, Del. Donald A. McGlothlin Sr. (D-Grundy) told partisan Democrats in Grundy and Richland that he was furious about an editorial in a nearby newspaper "which said that anyone related to LBJ wasn't fit to hold public office."
As Coleman was just leaving the junior high school down the street, the crowd in the Grundy High School auditorium stood and applauded when McGlothlin urged "everyone who is as proud of Lyndon Johnson as I am, stand up."
The Democrats hit hard at Miller, with his opponent for lieutenant governor, Richard Davis, saying "the only special interests we will serve is you."
The Democratic nominee for attorney general, Del. Gerald Baliles, promised to "correct the problems that lead to conflict of interest" by seeking out wrongdoing "rather than waiting for it to be brought to us."
Robb told a rally in Richlands that he and his running mates are "a team, while the other side is hard pressed even to be speaking to each other."
The gatherings in Clintwood capped a campaign that began 33 weeks ago.When the contest opened, there appeared little difference between these two attractive young men in motion. Both were lawyers, partial to pin-striped suits, button-down white shirts and cautious conservative rhetoric. Both had served as Marine Corps officers in Vietnam. Both were outsiders who had risen through their parties' ranks rapidly by seizing opportunities other politicians shied away from. Both hired out-of-state consultants to mastermind million-dollar media campaigns.
While both men won their parties' nominations at uncontested conventions last June, each had faced strong resistance from traditional party groups. Coleman, a former maverick state legislator who had won the attorney general's office running as a progressive, was disliked and distrusted by many GOP elders who questioned his conservative credentials. Robb was by self-definition an establishment loyalist, too much so for the liberals, blacks and union members who had dominated the Democratic Party for the last decade.
Before it was over, both were forced to make their peace with their party opponents. Coleman became a conservative's conservative, successfully courting GOP leaders such as former Gov. Mills Godwin. Robb made concessions to the liberals, softening his opposition to the Voting Rights Act, pledging support for voter registration by mail and for a state holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the slain civil rights leader.
On paper at least, Coleman seemed to have all the advantages. He was the nominee of a party that had not lost a major Virginia election -- for governor, senator or president -- in 15 years. He had an ardent supporter in popular GOP Gov. John N. Dalton and an even more popular friend in the White House in President Reagan. His campaign slogan -- "Let's Keep a Good Thing Going" -- summed up the essence of Coleman's strategy: play it safe, place yourself squarely in the status quo, get the voters Republicans have always gotten.
Robb had a strategy as well, albeit a high-risk one. It involved holding his party's liberal base while attracting a substantial chunk of conservatives disenchanted with Coleman. It was a juggling act from beginning to end, one that few expected the sometimes-awkward Robb to pull off. But as the campaign went on, he appeared to succeed.
Nowhere was Robb's achievement more plain than on the two candidates' finanical reports. Whereas the last Democrat to run for governor was outspent in the general election by nearly 3 to 1, Robb was able to match Coleman dollar for dollar during the first four critical weeks of October. The achievement was also measured in early polling, which in late September showed Robb ahead by anywhere from five to 11 points.
Coleman, an irrepressible campaigner accustomed to running as an underdog, was far from finished. For months, Robb had claimed there were no significant differences between him and Coleman on political issues, that each was equally entitled to the conservative mantle, that the only real issue was character -- which, he suggested, Coleman was short of. Finally in mid-October, Coleman, who for months had searched for issues that would define the difference between him and Robb, found a pair.
They were postcard voter registration and a constitutional amendment to give congressional representation to the District of Columbia. Both, asserted Coleman, were "litmus-test issues," the kind that separated true conservatives from phony ones. Robb, he contended, was the latter, and no less a conservative than Mills Godwin agreed, emerging at last a week ago to attack Robb in person and on radio ads broadcast in Virginia's rural Southside.
Robb charged that the issues were racial, designed to inflame the state's white voters and stampede them to the GOP. Coleman, who had successfully courted black votes in 1977 and who prided himself on being an equal rights advocate, heatedly denied race was involved. But polls showed Coleman closing the gap, especially in Southside and in the Richmond area, where racial issues still trigger deep and emotional reactions.
Then there was the Reagan connection. Faced with a potential humiliation just across the Potomac, the White House rushed in dollars -- nearly $150,000 as of a week ago -- and operatives from the Republican National Committee. Last week, the president himself made his long-awaited campaign appearance in Richmond, embracing Coleman and telling Virginians who may have had their doubts that "Marshall Coleman not only sounds conservative, he is conservative in the finest meaning of that word."
Those who didn't see Reagan in person saw him on television later in the week, part of Coleman's million-dollar media campaign. Both candidates spent equal amounts in an effort that listeners and viewers will long remember for its bitterness. Coleman painted Robb as a closet liberal secretly wedded to the big spending ideas of his late father-in-law, Lyndon Johnson. Robb portrayed Coleman as an irresponsible opportunist, calling for tough law enforcement while secretly helping to free convicted drug smugglers.
In the end, the contest boiled down to Robb's remarkable coalition of victory-starved Democrats and old-line conservatives versus Coleman's proven Republican machine. In separate interviews last week, each man said it would be very close. And each man said he would win.