Fluke or omen in Virginia?

June 20, 1994

It is official now. Virginia will have a four-way race for the Senate. Sen. Charles Robb won the Democratic primary last Tuesday. Former Gov. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, filed petitions to get on the ballot as an independent, joining Marshall Coleman, a Republican turned independent, and Oliver North, choice of the Republican convention.

Anyone could win. A recent Mason-Dixon poll showed this: Senator Robb, 28 percent; Mr. Coleman, 25; Governor Wilder, 22; Mr. North, 21. Statistically speaking, that's a dead heat.

Four-way races for high office are rare in this country. Generally speaking, voters get a choice of two representatives of the major parties and the winner gets over half the vote. This two-party arrangement has served the nation well. Americans respect TTC majorities. A candidate who barely wins, 51-49, has more of a mandate than one who wins by a landslide margin of, say, 40-25-20-15. Bill Clinton's political weakness is due in part to the fact that he is a 43-percent president.

There have been other signs that some large blocs of voters are unwilling to stay in the confines of traditional partisanship. But we hope that Virginia is a fluke, not a straw in the wind.

Except for Oliver North, the candidates have good credentials for Senate service. Mr. North's credentials are really only celebrityhood and passion. His liabilities are extreme. He lied to Congress while a member of the armed forces and the executive branch. Then he lied about his superiors' role in the affair that brought him down. Personalities aside, we find it hard to believe true conservatives would countenance such. Most don't. Virginia Sen. John Warner, a Republican, for one. There are enough to have put Mr. Coleman on the ballot.

Mr. Coleman, a former state attorney general, has failed so often in statewide races it would be easy to dismiss his chances. But he lost the 1989 race for governor to Mr. Wilder by only 7,000 votes out of 1.8 million cast. His problem is inconstancy on big issues, but he seems to have settled in the middle -- where most voters are.

Mr. Wilder, a black, was a liberal state legislator who moved to the center as governor, and if he can keep his black base and keep some of the moderate whites he has wooed, he will be a formidable candidate, even conceding most traditional Democrats and most white liberals to Senator Robb.

The senator has earned that support, balancing liberal concerns with his own Democratic Leadership Council's centrist pragmatism. His problems relate to personal scandals about which he dissembled. His Senate record is such that were it not for that scandal, he would be in a two-candidate race and he, deservedly, would be the heavy favorite.

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