Republican voters have long memories in Virginia Resentment smolders against Sen. Warner

June 08, 1996|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

TAPPAHANNOCK, Va. -- Rosamond Lilly has a "Vote for Jim Miller" sticker on her car and another on her purse. But her goal in Tuesday's Republican primary is less to elect James C. Miller than to defeat Sen. John W. Warner.

"He seems nice enough, but I really don't know much about Jim Miller," she said, standing in the shadow of a monument honoring Confederate cavalrymen. "But I do know that John Warner is a traitor to the Republican Party, and we need to vote him out."

There is a lot of that kind of thinking here in Tidewater, where social conservatism seems pervasive. Whether it is enough to nominate Miller, a former Reagan administration budget director, over Warner is in question. What is obvious, however, is that there is a raw-edged split in the Republican Party in Virginia.

The root cause is the position Warner took against Oliver North when North won the party's Senate nomination at a convention two years ago. Rather than accept the former Iran-contra figure, Warner helped bring another Republican, Marshall Coleman, into the race as an independent. Republicans blame that move for the re-election of Sen. Charles S. Robb, a Democrat.

"Others who didn't like it just kept quiet about it," Barbara Barlow, a party activist, said at a Miller meeting here the other day.

"I wouldn't have minded," said I. T. Van Patten, another Miller supporter, "if it hadn't been for the independent thing."

Just how this sentiment may be reflected in the returns is impossible to gauge because Virginia has little experience with primaries and cannot easily forecast how many of the state's 3 million voters will participate.

The conventional wisdom is that Warner will be nominated and will be favored against a wealthy -- and unrelated -- Democratic challenger named Mark Warner. The most recent poll, taken by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc. with a week left, found Warner leading Miller, 53 percent to 37 percent, among likely voters.

But that sample included 40 percent independents and 10 percent Democrats. Among Republicans only, the split was Warner 48 percent, Miller 44 percent, a statistical dead heat. "If it's just Republicans," Miller said, "I'll win, because my people are more committed."

Strategists in both camps agree that the lower the turnout, the higher the percentage of Republican activists and the better for Miller. In the last high-profile state primary fight, among Democrats for governor in 1989, the turnout was only 15 percent.

The question now is how large the turnout must be for Warner to win on the strength of the independent and Democratic support he is courting. Miller himself says a 15 percent to 17 percent turnout may be the breaking point for him. "Above that," Miller said in an interview, "and he's got it."

Evidence of Warner's weakness within the party is abundant. At the state convention last month, a straw vote came down for Miller, 76 percent to 24 percent. The atmosphere was so hostile to him that the three-term senator never showed up, limiting himself to a reception at a hotel. The highlight of the convention was North's arrival to endorse Miller.

Warner sees what his critics call betrayal as the independence that others want in a senator. "They are willing to say," he said in an interview, " 'We disagree with you, but we're willing to support you.' "

But the North episode is not the only one that sticks in the craw of some conservative Republicans. They are irked because Warner also refused to support Michael Farris, a home-schooling advocate and a favorite of the Christian Right, when he was nominated for lieutenant governor three years ago. And they have not forgotten that he voted against the nomination of Robert Bork for the Supreme Court.

Warner also has been off the reservation, in the eyes of social conservatives, with votes for public funding of abortions and the ban on assault weapons and against term limits. "He just doesn't pay any attention to what good Christian people here want to see," said Lilly.

Warner is running a conventional incumbent's campaign, stressing the value of his seniority. Speaking to a luncheon in Arlington, he cited his senior position on the Armed Services Committee and pointed out that the Pentagon spends $3.5 billion in the county. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "that's jobs." Talking about the need for federal money to replace the decaying Woodrow Wilson Bridge, he said, "You need a senior, respected United States senator."

For all his seniority, Warner has never built a political organization; he didn't need one. He was elected in a close race in 1978 but breezed home against token opposition, with 70 percent in 1984 and 81 percent in 1990. "It's really the first campaign I've had in these years," he said of Miller. "It's exciting, and it's fun."

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