Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. had considered abandoning his plans to retire from Congress and had won his wife's permission to seek another term days before some of his longtime political supporters announced a movement to draft the senator.
The disclosure, by one of those supporters and confirmed by a congressional source, indicates that the independent senator has taken a more active role than his supporters may have indicated when they launched their effort to keep him in Congress.
All that is bad news for the GOP and its followers who were badly divided as they gathered here today for a convention to nominate Rep. Paul S. Trible, a Tidewater congressman, to seek Byrd's seat in the November elections.
Republican leaders tried to contain the delegates' mounting anger at Byrd and the elder statesmen of his once-omnipotent political organization. Many of the delegates complained about what one high-ranking official called a "double cross" by the 66-year-old senator. "It's old Virginia politics and it really stinks," said Tom O'Brien of Arlington.
Byrd, who aides said was out of the state on a personal trip, continued to maintain an official silence as Republican delegates talked of little other than his plans. Jack Davis, a Byrd aide, characterized the petition drive today as "something from left field that flew in and caught everyone by surprise." Byrd's allies described their petition drive today as gathering momentum and downplayed the significance of the GOP gathering.
"I thought they'd called that Republican convention off," chuckled former Rep. Watkins M. Abbitt, 74, one of his Byrd's longtime friends, in an interview. "Why, Sen. Byrd is going to run."
Abbitt and his allies in the petition drive, former governor Mills E. Godwin and former state delegate W. Roy Smith, have portrayed their campaign as a grassroots effort for a reluctant senator. But another Byrd supporter, J. Smith Ferebee of Richmond, said Byrd had obtained his wife's permission to abandon last fall's retirement pledge a week before the draft effort was announced.
Byrd also sought the opinions of several conservative Virginia congressmen about a possible reelection bid in the weeks before the petition drive was launched, according to a knowledgeable congressional aide who asked not to be named. More recently the senator's aides telephoned at least one congressman's staff to reassure them that a Byrd candidacy would not jeopardize other Republicans this fall, said Northern Virginia Rep. Sanford E. Parris.
Trible, who said last fall he would run only if Byrd decided not to, did not learn of the petition drive until 30 minutes before it became public, he said earlier this week. The Newport News congressman has painstakingly avoided any criticism of the senior senator, but some Republicans who spoke with him during the week said he is depressed that much of the conservative establishment he has long courted seemingly has rejected him just before the convention.
"What he's feeling is pain and disappointment like your wife had just walked off with a traveling salesman," one official said.
The Trible campaign worked hard today to make sure that arriving delegates did not let their resentment of Byrd and Godwin spill into the open. "Nothing's going to be done to demean or denigrate the distinguished record of Senator Byrd," said Virginia's junior Sen. John W. Warner.
The senator, who said he had not spoken to Byrd, and former governor John N. Dalton appeared at a press conference with Trible in a demonstration of party unity.
Despite Warner's diplomatic statement, several Republican elected officials were reportedly angry at Byrd's 11th-hour move. "The word 'Virginia gentleman,' is no accident," said Parris. "There is one inviolable rule in politics and in particular Virginia politics and that is your word is your bond."
On the convention floor in the Richmond Coliseum, delegates were bitter that Trible's nomination was being upstaged by speculation about Byrd. Several of them said that Godwin, who sparked the rejuvenation of Virginia's Republican Party when he abandoned the Democrats a decade ago, had proved himself disloyal. "His days as the granddaddy of the new Republican Party are over," said Charles Weir of Fairfax County. "Mills Godwin is not our spokesman."
Other delegates said the old guard was pushing Byrd at the expense of Trible--and at the risk of splitting the conservative vote this fall--because they consider the 35-year-old congressman too young and too ambitious.
"He's not one of them," said Fairfax Del. Vincent Callahan, a state legislator who once ran for lieutenant governor against Godwin. "This has nothing to do with how you vote because he's just as conservative as they are . . . but he didn't come up through the ranks of the Byrd organization."