Virginia's Democrats try to regain the conservative Southern vote

Virginia, as in George Washington's day, remains a hefty coin toss away from the nation's capital.

And for the Republicans to win in the crucial Senate race in Virginia on Nov. 2, they're going to have to throw a bundle of cash over the Potomac River to win the seat for their candidate, Rep. Paul Trible.

At the moment the race is rated very, very close.

The Democrat, Lt. Gov. Richard J. Davis, has had the more ably run campaign. The Davis camp, following the successful formula for Gov. Charles Robb's victory last year, have stressed their candidate's ''character'' - his war experience as a marine, his business and banking achievements. Mr. Trible is trying to retrack the campaign on ''issues'' - playing up his political background.

So far, Mr. Davis has held the initiative. But Trible's cash resources - $1.5 million to Davis' $575,000 - could prove the difference in the closing days of the campaign.

What is happening in this Senate race, in the capital of the old confederacy, says a lot about Democratic prospects for regaining the conservative vote.

Already in the four-state Piedmont area, four Democrats have laid down political power bases that buck the national GOP trend - Governors James B. Hunt Jr. in North Carolina, John Y. Brown in Kentucky, John D. Rockefeller IV in West Virginia, and Robb in Virginia.

Will Davis, carried into his lieutenant governor's office in the Robb-led Democratic statewide office sweep in Virginia last year, become the newest in the formidable line of ''Democratic Piedmont Boys,'' as one political strategist has nicknamed them.

Or will Trible, one of the new aggressive type of Republicans, keep the Republican tide in Virginia going, when Sen. Harry Byrd - a Democrat in Senate organization but Republican in voting on issues - retires?

Some political observers in Virginia see a trend from conservative to moderate ranks among the state's voters. But Virginians remain among the most conservative in the nation - or as Virginians prefer to say, strongly ''traditionalist.''

The Democratic party in Virginia was split a decade ago during George McGovern's race for the presidency. That split provided a base for a Republican spurt in Virginia politics, as many Democrats moved over into the independent column. Not until Robb's win last year did the Democrats patch up a winning combination.

''Last year, Chuck Robb got the votes of former Democrats who had been calling themselves independents in recent years,'' says Bill Bishoff, executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party. ''We had to give them a reason - in Chuck Robb - to vote Democratic again.''

Republicans are uneasy about the Virginia House as well as Senate races. The balance between Democratic and Republican forces there is very close. A switch of only 4,000 votes in 1980 would have cut the Republicans' House delegation edge from 9-to-1 to 7-to-3, says Eddie Stikes, director of the Virginia Republican Party.

Republicans say they expect to swap a seat or two with Democrats on Nov. 2, but still emerge with a 9-to-1 edge.

The Democrats add the ninth district, in the far west corner of the state, to the GOP vulnerable list. Democrats expect to pick up four seats at best, one seat at the least, with a midground gain of two or three seats in Virginia. Geographically, the most contested seats are scattered across the state.

Democrats are pushing ''tradition'' and fiscal conservatism as their 1982 themes in Virginia Senate and House races. Ties to business are definitely in for Virginia Democrats this fall. This has focused campaigns on the candidates' ''character'' and ''style,'' rather than on issues, or anything like a referendum on Reagan Republicanism.

This annoys Virginia Republicans, who privately concede Trible wanes in comparison to the affable Davis.

''Trible comes across as a plastic candidate,'' says one Virginia GOP official. ''He has a rehearsed expression. He can't crack a joke. He can't get people to feel good about him. Davis comes across as more comfortable, humorous. But many Republicans think Trible would make a terrific senator. He's a hard worker.''

''Our campaign in Virginia has gone stumble, bumble, and fall lately, that has cost us momentum,'' says a national Republican official of tactical errors in the Trible camp. ''They tried to be too subtle. They tried to tie Dick Davis to labor, and it's cost them three weeks. You can't campaign against two candidates - your opponent and yourself.''

Republicans acknowledge they have a lot at stake in Virginia. ''If Trible wins, the perception will be that President Reagan was given a vote of confidence. If Davis wins: a vote of no-confidence,'' says Mr. Stikes. ''But that may not be true if the campaign never settles down to the issues,'' he adds.

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