Virginia Republican Wyatt B. Durrette, who is poised to accept the GOP nomination for governor, refused to abandon his neutral stance today in the party's heated race for lieutenant governor.
Durrette's hands-off decision on the opening day of the party's two-day nominating convention was seen as a boost for J. Marshall Coleman of McLean, the acknowledged front-runner in that race. Coleman is being opposed vigorously by members of a conservative faction who say he is too brash and independent and who blame him for the party's 1981 debacle in the state's gubernatorial elections.
Those leaders, including former Gov. Mills E. Godwin of Suffolk, unsuccessfully pressured Durrette to declare a preference in the hope that he would back the faltering campaign of state Sen. John H. Chichester of Fredericksburg.
But Durrette, a former Fairfax County legislator, said today he will not go back on his promise to remain neutral in the race. "I don't see a circumstance that would result in my breaking my neutrality," he told reporters on the eve of the balloting.
Coleman, 42, a former state attorney general and the party's candidate for governor in 1981, is trying to revive his political career. Many of his critics say they fear he wants the No. 2 job only as a steppingstone to run for governor again in 1989.
Chichester came to the convention in second place in the four-way fight for lieutenant governor, badly trailing Coleman but ahead of conservative fund-raiser Richard A. Viguerie of McLean and state Del. A.R. (Pete) Geisen of Augusta County.
The scrap over the second spot on the GOP ticket consumed the early hours of the convention as the first of 6,000 expected delegates arrived here amid a barrage of campaigning by the four candidates. A fifth candidate for lieutenant governor, Maurice A. Dawkins of Springfield, is running a symbolic campaign to draw blacks into the GOP and says he does not expect to win.
Geisen, initially considered by many to be a long-shot compromise choice if the vote drags past three or four ballots, also appeared to be picking up support, according to various campaign officials here. "I'm as optimistic as I ever was," said state Del. Vincent F. Callahan of McLean, one of Geisen's supporters. "He's a dark horse . . . he seems to be everybody's second choice."
Much of the first day of the convention was taken up by routine business and colorless speeches as delegates filtered into the huge Scope arena, where they were greeted by a campaign-poster-and- banner blizzard that covered nearly every wall.
"I feel very confident," said Coleman as he worked his way through the aisles. "I'm not predicting a win on the first ballot, but it'll be an early ballot."
Coleman's optimism is disputed by supporters of other candidates who say his lavish display of high-tech campaigning is misleading. "I don't think that impresses anybody," said Callahan, cochairman of the Geisen campaign. "They're all walking around mumbling into walkie-talkies just to make people feel important."
Geisen himself was trying to douse criticisms of his campaign that focused on his past support for the defeated Equal Rights Amendment and the state's abortion laws. He was telling delegates he would oppose any introduction of an ERA resolution that would contain the same language as the defeated amendment and said he favors abortion only in limited circumstances, such as the "protection of victims" of rape and incest.
Viguerie, making his first bid for elective office in Virginia, worked the smaller than expected crowd with his own cadre of aides with walkie-talkies.
The lower turnout -- as many as 10,000 had been predicted at one time by party officials -- was expected to help Viguerie, who gets much of his support from conservative Christian groups in the Norfolk area.
"We have the home court advantage here," said Viguerie. " . . . Our people can sleep late, have a leisurely breakfast and still make it to the convention."
Many delegates apparently are staying home because Durrette wrapped up his nomination early when Rep. Stan Parris of Fairfax withdrew from the race in early May.
The outcome of the race for lieutenant governor is uncertain because few if any of the delegates are committed under party rules to any particular candidate until the Saturday balloting.
Party officials have rearranged the schedule Saturday to accommodate what could be a long and protracted fight over the lieutenant governor's nomination.
Durrette, the party's unsuccessful nominee for state attorney general in 1981, is scheduled to be nominated about 11 a.m. and to give his acceptance speech before his running mates are picked.
The party will then choose its attorney general nominee, state Del. W.R. (Buster) O'Brien of Virginia Beach, who faces token opposition, before taking up the volatile lieutenant governor contest.
Virginia Democrats already have agreed on their ticket. State Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles of Richmond, who defeated Durrette in 1981, will run for governor along with state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond for lieutenant governor and state Del. Mary Sue Terry of Patrick County for attorney general. They will be nominated at a Richmond convention next weekend.