His name was not on the ballot, but Virginia Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb was one of the big winners in Tuesday's elections, national political leaders said yesterday.
Robert Strauss, an influential Washington lawyer and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the Democratic sweep of state offices "in my judgment . . . projects Robb , whether he wants it or not, into the national political arena in terms of '88 politics."
Other national and regional politicians and consultants poured out accolades for Robb, the 45-year-old son-in-law of former president Johnson. Robb's election in a sweep four years ago ousted the entrenched Republican Party and set the stage for Tuesday's victories.
Democrat Gerald L. Baliles, attorney general in the Robb administration, was elected governor, while state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder, the first black elected to a major statewide office in the South since Reconstruction, won the race for lieutenant governor, and Mary Sue Terry, the first woman elected statewide in Virginia, was chosen state attorney general.
Many consultants and strategists of both parties said the Virginia victory was in effect a "reelection" of Robb because the incumbent party won. Under Virginia law, Robb cannot succeed himself.
V. Lance Tarrance of Houston, a prominent GOP consultant and pollster, suggested, however, that Robb has yet to fully prove his own staying power. Tarrance said Robb has been a good governor much like Virginia Republicans John N. Dalton and Linwood Holton.
"A young Democrat who combines social progressiveness with fiscal restraint is very simpatico with the South," Tarrance said. But, he said, to avoid a fall from memory Robb would have to run for the Senate in 1988 against incumbent GOP Sen. Paul S. Trible. "If he wins against Trible, he's proved his merit and you've got a potential candidate of national significance."
Other political operatives noted that the Democratic Party in Virginia has suffered two defeats for the U.S. Senate while Robb has been governor, including the 1984 landslide reelection of GOP Sen. John W. Warner, who crushed his Democratic opponent by 70 to 30 percent.
Robb has repeatedly refused to say whether he has national political ambitions but has kept a busy schedule of party activities that have taken him around the country. He told a television interviewer a few weeks ago that "I hope I have the wisdom to stay on the sidelines" in 1988 presidential campaigning.
Strauss, a Texas friend of President Johnson and a longtime political acquaintance of Robb, said he expects Robb to join "a distinguished Virginia law firm" after his term ends Jan. 11. "I have the sense [presidential politics] is the furthest thing from his mind."
Raymond D. Strother, a media consultant who works with many Democratic campaigns in the South, said "the new candidate for the Democrats and the Republicans is Chuck Robb. It's not the Rev. Jerry Falwell or it's not North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms."
Paul G. Kirk Jr., chairman of the Democratic National Committee, praised the Virginia Democratic ticket today for addressing "the Main Street issues" and noted that "the voters of Virginia responded with force, as they had to Gov. Chuck Robb -- and they all deserve our congratulations."
Kirk praised Robb, who was among southerners initially opposed to Kirk's election as DNC chairman, as "a name that [is] going to be talked about." He said the party has 34 Democratic governors but with "the job Chuck Robb has done," he is "one of the stars [and] stands alone as one of the leaders in the party."
Roland W. Burris, comptroller of Illinois and a vice chairman of the DNC, hailed the Democratic victory in Virginia as a "tribute to the citizens" of the state, but said, "I don't think it could have been won without Gov. Robb and that certainly bodes pretty well for the future for whatever he decides to do."
The DNC played a key background role in Tuesday's election, pumping about $175,000 in staff, phone banks and campaign material into the campaign. Terry Michael, spokesman for the DNC, said it was the most the DNC has contributed to any state campaign.
Frank Watkins, press secretary for Jesse L. Jackson, said Tuesday's election was in many respects a logical progression from Jackson's successful "rainbow candidacy" in the Virginia presidential caucuses in 1984. He said "the rainbow candidate won in Virginia in 1984 . . . . Now the rainbow ticket has won Virginia in 1985."
William Hamilton, a Democratic consultant, said the elections "were something good for Democrats in a state that was trending very heavily for Republicans."
Arizona Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a leader with Robb among southern and western Democrats trying to move their party more toward the center, attributed much of the Democratic ticket sweep to Robb.
"He adopted a political style in Virginia that mixed traditional coalition building and centrist policy, which is really what the future of the Democratic Party is," Babbitt said in a telephone interview.
Former Reagan White House political adviser Ed Rollins contended, however, that Tuesday's election primarily showed the Democrats ran a good political operation while "the Republican campaign was pretty inept."