RICHMOND, Va. -- With less than two weeks to go in Virginia's race for governor, Democrat Mary Sue Terry, the state's attorney general, and Republican George F. Allen, a former congressman, can agree on one thing: Virginians want a change. And as a result of the state's one-term limit that is forcing incumbent Democrat L. Douglas Wilder to the sidelines, they're certain to get it. But how much change, and what kind, is the question.
Because Democrats have occupied the governor's mansion here for the last 12 years, it's a very hard sell for Terry. And Allen is making it harder by harping on what he calls "the Wilder-Terry administration" of the last four years. Sometimes Allen also talks of "the Wilder-Robb-Terry party," throwing in Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb, whose high-profile feud with Wilder and allegations of associations with unsavory characters when he himself was governor threaten his own re-election (to be challenged by Wilder) next year.
In a debate here the other night, Allen drove home the point of Terry's party affiliation by asking her to affirm that she had voted for the last four Democratic presidential nominees, all of whom lost Virginia. She sidestepped the question, saying after the debate that the choice was between herself and Allen, and that she was focusing on the future not the past. But she didn't tell the statewide television audience that.
Allen had raised the question of her support in response to Terry's repeated efforts to paint Allen as a political soul-brother of television evangelist Pat Robertson, who has contributed to his campaign. But Allen noted pointedly that when Robertson ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, he backed George Bush, as he did again in 1992, as well as supporting Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.
In the argument over which of them represents change, and what kind, this game of guilt-by-association has run rampant. Terry also reminds voters that Allen is running on the Republican ticket with lieutenant governor candidate Mike Farris, an outspoken voice of the religious right whose views have drawn heavy Democratic ridicule.
Farris once referred to the public schools as "a godless monstrosity" and is an advocate of home schooling. He is charged in Democratic ads of trying to keep such classic children's books as "The Wizard of Oz" out of public classrooms, based on depositions in a court case that Farris denies proposed such action. When Terry was late to a recent debate before the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, she explained she was in her hotel room practicing singing, "We're off to see the Wizard." And at the Richmond debate, two young Terry workers showed up, one dressed as the Scarecrow and the other as the Tin Man.
All this sniping has blurred a serious argument over education and crime that has otherwise dominated the campaign. Terry says an Allen proposal for school vouchers to permit parents to BTC send their kids to private schools would destroy the state's public school system. And Allen blames Virginia's high violent crime rate on Democratic softness and proposes abolishing the state's parole system in favor of mandatory sentencing. Terry says such action would require huge new prison construction for which Allen offers no answer, since he has pledged no new taxes.
Terry's much higher name recognition in the state sent her off to a strong lead in early polls, but it slipped badly, in part as a result of an ugly whispering campaign raising questions about her sexual orientation since she is unmarried and childless. She flatly denied to a direct question that she was a lesbian, but campaign aides acknowledge that the allegations hurt. The most recent Mason-Dixon poll had Allen leading, 48 percent to 41 percent, figures that the Terry campaign did not dispute.
The poll also had women slightly favoring Allen, 43 percent to 42 percent, a rather surprising showing in this era of acute political awareness and activism among women in support of female candidates. To cope with it, Terry is emphasizing her pro-choice position on abortion as well as her education views. But time is ebbing, and selling herself as the candidate of change when her party has been in charge for 12 years shapes up as a colossal task.