Robb's 'landslide victory' shows why he could lose



WASHINGTON -- Ordinarily, winning a primary with 58 percent of the vote qualifies for such cliches as "resounding success" or even "landslide victory." In the case of Sen. Charles Robb and the Virginia Democratic primary, however, the result served only to define his weakness.

Robb is, after all, the incumbent senator and a former governor. He spent more than $2 million on the primary against an opponent, an obscure state legislator from southwest Virginia, who raised only $150,000. Robb, moreover, had the support of all the usual Democratic Party auxiliaries with any clout, such as teachers and organized labor.

But those advantages were not enough to evoke any enthusiasm among Virginia Democrats. Robb won his 58 percent -- to 34 percent for state Sen. Virgil Goode -- in a turnout of only 267,000 voters, fewer than 10 percent of those eligible.

Another incumbent might have gotten that many votes by accident. Goode's performance suggests that a heavyweight opponent -- someone like former Gov. Gerald Baliles or one of the Democrats in the state's House delegation -- would have beaten Robb easily.

In other circumstances, Robb's display of weakness would mean he could be written off in the general election in November.

But the Virginia Senate race this year is a special case -- an unprecedented four-way campaign in which all four candidates are carrying such heavy political baggage it is reasonable to wonder how any of them can win.

Oliver North's negatives are most obvious in the fact that so many Republicans of stature, including Sen. John Warner, have decided they don't want their party represented by someone who made his reputation breaking the law and lying to Congress about it.

But neither of the independent alternatives is a virgin, either. Republican Marshall Coleman has lost three statewide elections and danced all around the abortion issue. Democrat L. Douglas Wilder has gained a well-deserved reputation for gratuitously picking political fights with everyone from Mario Cuomo to Robb.

Robb's problem, of course, is his personal life. He has admitted conduct with women "not appropriate" for a married man, which apparently covers that massage he was given by a former Miss Virginia in a New York hotel room while he was governor. He attended parties in Virginia Beach at which others said cocaine was being used, although Robb says he never saw it.

But that doesn't mean he cannot win in a campaign in which 35 percent to 40 percent of the vote -- possibly even less -- is likely to be adequate. That depends on whether he can make the case that there are important enough issues before the voters that they should put aside doubts about his personal qualities.

If that strategy sounds familiar, it is because it is precisely the course candidate Bill Clinton followed during his political crisis in the New Hampshire primary of 1992.

Buffeted first by the accusations of Gennifer Flowers and then by the disclosures of his own maneuvering to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War, Clinton doggedly kept his focus on the condition of the economy and the reasons voters should want change.

In the end, the strategy worked. Although opinion polls showed voters were not pleased by his sometimes halting explanations of his personal history, they also showed that these concerns were entirely secondary to finding someone with some potential to meet the economic crisis and deal with other domestic concerns, such as the health care and educational systems.

Whether Robb can use the same approach is an open question. For one thing, he already has admitted more flagrant misbehavior than Clinton ever confessed, so it isn't possible for supporters to simply swallow denials as some Clinton supporters and advisers have done.

For another, it is far more difficult to make a rational case that it matters a great deal who serves in a particular Senate seat.

The stakes are high in terms of which party controls the Senate, but who is going to buy the idea that the republic is in jeopardy if Robb isn't re-elected? The Senate's response to most crises is to hold a public hearing and hope it will go away.

But the hard truth is that Chuck Robb doesn't have any better options. He is not a candidate these days who inspires Virginians to walk through a wall for him -- or, for that matter, even bother to vote.

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