In Virginia politics, 1993 may be remembered as the year in which Republicans took the penultimate step toward assuming the role of majority party in this conservative state.

What also will be remembered is how they did it: By hitching their star to an aw-shucks, tobacco-chewing, one-time congressman whose principal distinction was being the son of a famous Washington Redskins coach and who largely owed his nomination to the Christian right.

Not only did George F. Allen overcome attacks about evangelicals’ influence on him and his running mates -- which sometimes threatened to turn a political war into a religious one. On Nov. 2 he won by a landslide, beating former two-term Democratic state attorney general Mary Sue Terry, whose gubernatorial election had long seemed assured.

It made for an interesting 12 months.

“It was the year of the upset,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato. “Virginia moved back to its traditionalist, conservative moorings. After 12 years of experimenting {with Democratic leadership}, Virginians decided to return to tried and true recipes, at least for the while.”

Depending on one’s perspective, 1993’s highlights also were its lowlights. The National Rifle Association suffered unprecedented defeat when a bill was passed limiting handgun sales to one a month per person. Former Iran-contra figure Oliver L. North campaigned everywhere for GOP legislative candidates -- and for his own candidacy to topple U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb, an election still more than a year away. But North received a frigid reception from Virginia Republicans’ senior statesman, Sen. John W. Warner.

As for Robb and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the two Democrats continued their feuding. When Robb was not indicted in connection with a taped Wilder phone call that aides had obtained and circulated, the governor called Robb a liar who was unfit to hold public office.

Wilder later announced that he’d be the candidate to try to push Robb out of office in ‘94. And so by year’s end, one of the most well-known and unpopular trio of candidates ever to seek statewide office in the nation -- North, Robb and Wilder -- was doing so in the Old Dominion.

There was a late touch of scandal when state Sen. Robert E. Russell (R) of suburban Richmond was found guilty of embezzlement. In addition, two elected officials were accused of political incorrectness in ‘93: Wilder, for imitating a lisping, limp-wristed homosexual while jousting with reporters; and Republican state Sen. Warren E. Barry of Fairfax, for cracking a racially insensitive joke at a GOP roast.

The General Assembly met for 46 days, but the gun-control bill overshadowed all other work, including a $105 million appropriation for three major Northern Virginia transportation projects. The gun law attracted national attention and was a crowning achievement for Wilder, who pushed it through by capitalizing on public anger over crime. At one point in the often-heated debate, Del. Jean W. Cunningham (D-Richmond) displayed a “street sweeper” shotgun to her colleagues in the House chamber.

After legislators went home, however, it was politics through and through, much of it nasty. Few envisioned the GOP’s advance early on, although in hindsight the party’s gains seem a logical consequence of the desire for change that U.S. voters first exhibited in the ‘92 presidential election.

“Mary Sue Terry ran a terrible, lackluster campaign, seemingly repeating the themes of George Bush in ‘92,” said Mark J. Rozell, a political science professor at Mary Washington College. Rozell added that he and other political pundits “also misread the political climate, but she was the one who suffered the consequences.”

Change was the battle cry of Allen, as opposed to Terry, who called trust the key word. She went much of the campaign without articulating a clear message or image. She first played down her gender, which would have made her the state’s first female governor, and then responded to an Allen attack by saying, “We can now declare chivalry dead” in Virginia. She attended a Washington fund-raiser hosted by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and then tried to distance herself from the president.

She made a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases the central issue of her platform, despite having opposed a three-day wait as recently as January.

By fall, the candidate whose past successes had made her the most prolific vote-getter in state history had frittered away a 30-point lead in the polls. What once had been a tenfold advantage in fund-raising also began to evaporate. Terry turned negative. She accused Allen of resorting to “the politics of hate” because he aligned himself with the religious right and suggested that being married with two children would make him a better governor than the unmarried, childless Terry.

But the ugliness of that race paled when compared with the pitch of the lieutenant governor’s contest. Incumbent Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. won it only with a million-dollar commercial attack on the hitherto unknown Michael P. Farris, a Loudoun County constitutional lawyer who has represented several Christian parents in conflicts over public school curriculum.

Beyer alleged that Farris had tried to ban such classic books as “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank from schools in Tennessee, and he hinted that Farris would do the same in Virginia if elected. Farris countered by denouncing Beyer as a religious bigot. A few weeks before the election, one poll found that Farris had become a household name, recognized by more voters than Beyer.

Beyer apparently convinced enough voters that his challenger was a menace -- partly by exaggerating Farris’s views -- to win reelection. But he may have created a political monster for Democrats. Exit polls showed that more than one-third of those voting on Nov. 2 considered themselves born-again Christians, about twice as many as four years earlier. They didn’t have the muscle to boost Farris into office, but they helped Allen and attorney general candidate James S. Gilmore III break the Democratic lock on the top state offices.

In turn, Allen helped Republicans come a whole lot closer to breaking the other party’s control of the General Assembly. The GOP gained six seats in the 100-member House of Delegates. When the next session begins in two weeks, Republicans will trail Democrats 52 to 47, with one independent legislator; they are behind by only four seats in the Senate.

“The pressure will be on the Republicans to perform,” said Robert Holsworth, who heads the political science department at Virginia Commonwealth University. For years, Republicans, because of their relatively small numbers, “got a free ride” in the assembly, complaining about what the Democrats did without having to come up with counterproposals.

If the Democrats remain united, they will have the votes to block Allen initiatives or amend them to their liking. The Legislative Black Caucus, with seven members in the House, “could play an interesting role with some horse trading” that would give Republicans a majority on their issues in return for help on black concerns, Holsworth said.

The major test of GOP clout may come in a special session Allen has called for spring to deal with crime. Lawmakers can change sentencing guidelines relatively easily, Holsworth said. But abolishing parole and building more prisons -- two Allen campaign promises -- will cost money, and the Democrats will make the Republicans reveal what programs they plan to cut to pay for them.