Intricate Political Arithmetic In Va. On The Political Scene

June 04, 1994|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Sun Staff Correspondent

RICHMOND, Va. -- The campaign staff of L. Douglas Wilder has set up shop just outside the Richmond Coliseum this weekend to seek signatures for the petitions intended to qualify the Democratic former governor as an independent candidate for the Senate in November.

On the face of it, seeking signatures for a Democrat from Republicans attending their own state convention to nominate their own candidate for the Senate would seem to be a strange exercise. But in the bizarre political equation that defines the Senate campaign in Virginia this year, it makes eminent good sense.

The theory of the Wilder strategists is that some Republicans -- more than 14,000 have gathered here to choose between Oliver L. North and James C. Miller for the GOP nomination -- may feel they have a self-interest in helping Mr. Wilder qualify for the ballot.

The conventional wisdom among Virginia politicians in both parties is that an independent campaign by Mr. Wilder, the first black ever elected to a state governorship, back in 1989, will attract black voters who otherwise would vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Charles S. Robb.

But the political arithmetic is even more intricate than that. If, as expected, Mr. North wins the Republican nomination at the convention this weekend, another Republican, former state Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, is expected to run as an independent -- bringing the potential field in November to four "serious" candidates.

The theory of those supporting Mr. Coleman -- including Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia's senior Republican leader -- is that his candidacy would offer mainstream Republicans someone "politically respectable" rather than having to choose either Mr. North or a Democrat.

No commitment yet

Neither Mr. Wilder nor Mr. Coleman has made a public commitment to run as an independent. Mr. Wilder, in particular, has a history of sudden shifts of political direction. But both are sending clear signals to potential supporters that they intend to run. The former governor, for example, has been meeting with and sending letters to black ministers, a constituency of significant weight if Mr. Wilder enters the competition.

"For all intents and purposes, we're operating as if he's running," said Glenn Davidson, the longtime Wilder aide who is serving as campaign manager.

The cause of all this maneuvering is the highly unusual situation in which both an incumbent, Senator Robb, and his most likely challenger, Mr. North, have the kind of negative ratings in opinion polls -- above 40 percent, in some surveys -- that ordinarily would doom a candidate.

Mr. North was convicted in 1987 of three felony counts growing out of his role in the Iran-contra affair as a member of the National Security Council staff. The convictions were later overturned on a technicality -- that the case against him had been tainted by the congressional hearings on the episode -- but have not been forgotten by other Republicans.

Senator Warner has called Mr. North "an embarrassment," questioned the wisdom of electing someone to the Senate who has been convicted of lying to Congress and even threatened to run as an independent himself once his term expires in two years. Mr. North also has been repudiated by many others in the national Republican establishment, including both former President Ronald Reagan and Gen. Colin L. Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Senator Robb's negatives are different but no less burdensome. They grow out of his admission that as governor he sometimes behaved in what he called a manner "not appropriate" for a married man and allegations that he attended parties where cocaine was used. But Mr. Robb is still heavily favored to win the Democratic nomination over underfunded and little-known challengers in the Democratic primary June 14, which is also the deadline for petitions bearing at least 15,000 signatures to qualify as an independent.

North favored

Mr. North is favored in the convention vote here today, although some veterans of Virginia politics say Mr. Miller, a budget director in the Reagan administration, may make it close. Mr. North has strong backing from the religious right and other conservatives who see his role in the Iran-contra affair and his defiance of Congress as heroic rather than criminal. He has been running an aggressive and well-funded campaign for months, and he arrived here for the convention claiming about 57 percent of the likely vote.

Mr. Miller's high card is polling data showing that he could defeat Mr. Robb but that Mr. North would not. Meeting with undecided delegates, Mr. Miller is describing the Republican goal as a chance to "stick it to Bill Clinton" and arguing: "If we want to, we've got to pick someone who will win." His hopes seem to rest on the possibility that undecided or "weak" North supporters will use the secrecy of the ballot to opt for the strongest opponent for Mr. Robb.

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