About 2:30 p.m., the Fisher troops were whooping it up. The tally from the Norfolk-Virginia Beach delegation, sitting in the far left hand corner of the Roanoke Civic Center, had been been announced and everyone knew that Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis was not going to win the U.S. Senate nomination on the first ballot.
That meant the week-old campaign to make former Arlington representative Joseph L. Fisher Virginia's next Democratic Virginia senator had at least 30 minutes of life, the time it would take for Davis to be nominated on a second ballot. For Fisher's devoted supporters, that half-hour was the difference between humiliation and graceful defeat.
"It meant a lot to know that we were able to pull it through two ballots," said Sharon Davis, Arlington's Democratic chairman. "Everybody needed that to exorcise the emotions of these last two days."
The main act at he Roanoke convention this week was the skillful efforts of party leaders to orchestrate a nomination for Lt. Gov. Davis. But Northern Virginia, with its two declared candidates--Fisher and Fairfax County prosecutor Robert F. Horan--provided the sideshow.
From the moment they arrived Friday, Fisher and Horan supporters knew their efforts were in vain. The word had made its way through the milling delegates: the convention all but belonged to Davis, the same man whose decision to get out of the race two weeks before had prompted their candidates to jump in.
The Northern Virginians had been hoping for a campaign--a race among candidates fought in caucuses, not in back rooms. Horan had ordered up a slew of green and white boaters, placards and bumper stickers. The Fisher group was wearing maroon baseball hats and handing out poster-size pictures of Fisher standing in front of the U.S. Capitol.
Fisher, 68, took a leave of absence from his job as Secretary of Human Resources in Gov. Charles S. Robb's cabinet to travel from Petersburg to Portsmouth to Charlottesville, meeting delegates on their home turf. Horan, the first to get into the race, acknowledged that last week was among the most frustrating of his life, as he awaited word on Davis' campaign.
It was about 5 p.m. on Friday when Arlington County Sheriff James Gondles, an ardent Fisher backer, arrived in Roanoke to learn it was all over. "I walked in, someone bottonholed me to tell me that Davis had told Horan he was in, and my reaction was to turn around, get back in my car and drive back to Arlington," said Gondles, still angry 15 hours later.
"I think Davis wanted to run from the beginning. I think he's been playing a game and I think he is going to suffer for it," said Gondles.
The bitterness over Davis' on-again, off-again candidacy was also clear in Fisher's own speeches to the caucuses and to the convention itself. The speeches, punchy, taut and emotional, were, some said, among the best Fisher has ever given.
"Other candidates may be in and they may not be in," Fisher told a Northern Virginia caucus yesterday morning, "but you know me. When I say I'm going to do a thing, I go ahead and set my teeth to it."
The Northern Virginia's tenaciousness, so often irritating to the rest of the state, was appreciated by others in the convention center yesterday, even those who supported Davis. "I'm glad Fisher is putting up a fight," said Richmond delegate Sophie Salley, as she watched a small parade of placard-bearing Arlingtonians make a swing around the convention hall. "Otherwise, it would be so dull."
But also the presence of Fisher, Horan and state Sen. Virgil Goode Jr.--a fourth announced candidate--helped preserve the sense that Virginia's Democrats did have a choice, that they truly were electing one nominee from among several contenders.
"Rumors have been running wild that this convention has been brokered," said Fairfax County Supervisor Martha Penino, who seconded Horan's nomination, "but I want to remind you that we are here to make a decision."
In some quarters, Davis' maneuvering had actually created new support for Fisher. "I think some people are irritated by the going and coming," said Charlottesville delegate Francis Fife, who actually switched from Davis to Fisher.
Aside from admiring Fisher, Fife had a theory that Fisher as a Democratic nominee might help push Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. back into the race and that, said Fife, would be a boon to Democrats.
"It's a very peculiar situation," said Fife, echoing the prevailing view that this has been an odd spring for Virginia politics.