Virginia Republicans bask in Robb-Wilder fiasco On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

June 20, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

NOW THAT those two old pals, Virginia's Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Sen. Charles Robb, have informed the world that there never really was any feud going on between them, they may be naive enough to believe that they can walk away unscarred from the sorry spectacle of their public alley fight.

For openers, the prospects of each for a place on the 1992 Democratic national ticket surely are dimmed not only by the publicity given to rumors about their personal lives but also by their displays of personal vindictiveness and pettiness, and their disregard for the reputation of their party.

A presidential bid by either one will without doubt trigger rehashes of the back-biting over the taping of Wilder phone conversations demeaning Robb and Robb's injudicious decision to hold onto a Wilder tape for two and a half years. If you believe that Robb had the tape but never listened to it, we may be able to get you a good price on George Washington's old place at Mount Vernon.

A vice-presidential nomination as well seems more unlikely now for either one. After all, a running mate isn't expected to help the presidential nominee much, but certainly shouldn't hurt him. A caveat here, though, is that you never can tell what will run through a presidential nominee's mind when he picks a running mate. Witness George Bush's selection of Dan Quayle. Among those who appear to have the most reason to rejoice over the Robb-Wilder mud wrestle are leaders of the Virginia Republican Party. Already they are casting covetous eyes not only on Robb, whose Senate seat is up in 1994, and on the governorship, which Wilder must vacate after 1993, but on the state legislature and Virginia's congressional delegation.

GOP state chairman Donald Huffman suggests the Democrats are kidding themselves if they believe their party will not pay a price for the Robb-Wilder fiasco. "I remember how we were affected in the Watergate years," he says. While this rhubarb most assuredly was no Watergate, it has come at a time of general disillusionment with politics.

Joe Elton, executive director of the Virginia Republican Party, claims that "the mood in the commonwealth for change is extraordinary." Wilder, he says, has displayed "an arrogance of power that culminated in the feud" with Robb.

Elton says support is mounting for James C. Miller, budget director in the Reagan administration who is now teaching at George Mason University and heading a GOP commission examining the state's fiscal situation, to challenge Robb in 1994. Others being mentioned, he says, include columnist Patrick Buchanan and former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, both residents of Northern Virginia and both darlings of the Republican right, and former secretary of the navy James Webb.

Of more immediate focus for the state's Republicans, however, is the legislature, where the GOP now holds only 40 of 100 seats in the House of Delegates and 10 of 40 Senate seats. All are up this fall and Elton says the climate for gains and a possible majority "couldn't be better" in the wake of Robb and Wilder washing their dirty political laundry in public.

By next year, however, the Robb-Wilder row may be forgotten. The two principals obviously hope so, judging from their farcical insistence that the whole business was no more than an #F invention of the news media. But given the temperaments unveiled by the episode, the last chapter in the feud may not yet be written -- especially if Wilder should himself challenge Robb for the Senate seat in 1994.

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