"The stock was assessable," Dick Davis remembers. He is talking about the bank stock --"the great investment of the 1920s"--his father left behind when he died in 1928. "Assessable" means that when a bank goes under, its depositors can sue stockholders for their losses, and so Dick Davis' family lost most of its money a few years after his father's death, when five of the six banks in his native Portsmouth, Va., failed. In the early 1930s, when Davis was only 10 years old, "the support of my mother was mine."

Portsmouth is not a typical Virginia town. It looks like some place in New Jersey--an industrial port city, with grimy docks, a downtown framed by a naval shipyard at one end and a Navy hospital at the other. Just across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk, Portsmouth is part of a metro area that is more than 1 million today and was about half that size when Davis was growing up. It differs from New Jersey in one respect, however: there are few "ethnics" there, just whites and blacks, most of whose ancestors come from rural Virginia. Davis' Irish Catholic ancestors were an exception, and he likes to tell how, during the 1928 campaign, when Al Smith was the first major-party Catholic presidential candidate, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on his family's front lawn. Most Virginia politicians are men from dominant families in small towns, men who have not been the target of prejudice. Davis' experience is different, and so it is not surprising that he opposed the Byrd machine's policy of "massive resistance" against desegregation or that he favored the Voting Rights Act.

But in conversation, his memory is less dominated by examples of prejudice than it is punctuated by numbers. He remembers that he had saved up, from odd jobs, $112 when he went off to college at William and Mary in 1938; that his semester room rent there was $40; that he made 75 cents per reference for checking credit references; that he owed the college $138 after graduation; that the GI bill paid him $105 per month while he was in law school; that he stayed in the Marine Reserve because it paid $18 per drill and $50 administrative pay. More recent numbers are bigger. He has a net worth of $2.5 million, but he worries about the debt he carries as part of his business operations. He has $1.5 million in life insurance; his father, when he died at 52, had none.

All this is recounted with a smile and a twinkle in his pale blue Irish eyes, and occasional mentions of details that suggest why he has had such success. In high school, one of his odd jobs was carrying jewelry to be monogrammed --not a task just any teen-ager would be trusted with --and in college he was not just another waiter in the dining room, but, by junior year, the headwaiter. In World War II he was part of the Marine units that island-hopped from Tarawa to Saipan to Okinawa. Going back on ship to 30 days' leave--having been promoted to captain --in August 1945, "we learned some kind of bomb had been dropped. I was very glad the war was over." But he served in the Marine Reserve and was called up again for Korea

In postwar America, Davis achieved the kind of financial success he had seen as a child before his father's death and during the 1930s in college in Williamsburg--one of the most prosperous towns in America in the Depression because John D. Rockefeller Jr. was financing the reconstruction of its colonial buildings. With the help of his father-in-law, Davis became a successful mortgage banker; in partnership with William Spong, he became a successful lawyer. As in his school years, he seemed always to be working on several tasks at once.

Spong was the politician, and "our association delayed my own entry into politics." In 1966, Spong became the only non-Byrd Democrat elected to the Senate in Virginia in the last 50 years; his defeat six years later by William Lloyd Scott was "the biggest political travesty in Virginia." Davis became mayor of Portsmouth in 1974, when the city had a $3 million deficit; he left office, having been elected without opposition in 1976, with $3 million unappropriated. He became Democratic state chairman in 1978, at a low point in the party's fortunes, and helped to bring about the election of Gov. Charles Robb as well as his own election as lieutenant governor in 1981.

Now Davis is a candidate for senator, after having ruled himself out of the race, as a result of what he calls "as near to a true political draft as has happened in American politics." At 61 he is older than most first-time candidates and he has had less experience in elections. One of the folk figures in American politics is the smiling, drawling southerner who says that he is just a country lawyer but is about as naive as the late Richard J. Daley. Dick Davis is a little like that: in a state where politics is dominated by humorless small-town businessmen and lawyers, Dick Davis is a smiling city boy who has nothing bad to say about anyone and shuckses about how he will be outspent by rich Republicans--and remembers a lot of numbers.