Feuding Virginia Democrats Risk Losing State House to Republican

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

DEMOCRATS, stung by several election defeats since President Clinton took office, face another potential debacle next month in Virginia.

If disaster strikes in the governor's race here, experts say Democrats will have only themselves to blame. Analysts attribute the party's troubles in the Old Dominion to the ``terrible troika'' - the highly unpopular Democratic governor, Democratic senator, and Democratic president.

Mr. Clinton, while regaining some of his political halo nationally, remains badly out-of-favor with Virginia's conservative voters. They don't like the president's social and taxation policies. Making matters worse, the state is being pounded by defense cutbacks ordered by Clinton.

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Meanwhile, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Sen. Charles Robb, the state's two leading Democrats, are locked in a political feud that would do credit to the Hatfields and the McCoys. They seem more focused on the 1994 Senate race, when they will be opponents, than on this year's contest for governor.

The Robb-Wilder quarrel has frayed the Virginia Democratic Party, dismayed and disgusted voters, and sharply diminished prospects on Nov. 2 for the party's candidate for governor, Attorney General Mary Sue Terry.

Without the constant Democratic bickering, pollster Del Ali at Mason-Dixon Opinion Research says, Ms. Terry would breeze past her Republican opponent, George Allen. Yet Terry has blown her earlier 29-point lead and now trails seven points behind Mr. Allen, a former congressman and state legislator.

As Election Day approaches, Governor Wilder shows little sign of relenting in his war with Senator Robb. Under his official letterhead, the governor last week sent political reporters a reprint of the latest scathing editorial attack against Robb.

The article, written by the dean of Virginia's political scientists, Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia, charges the senator with ``shocking indiscretions'' while he was governor from 1982 to 1986.

Dr. Sabato accuses Robb of partying ``week after week after week'' with a ``sleazy Virginia Beach social set'' where ``cocaine was plentiful and was openly displayed and used.'' Pat Robertson connection

All this has added to the impetus among Virginians to toss out their top Democrats. Indeed, Allen might be widening his lead even more but for one factor - his connections to the Virginia-based Rev. Pat Robertson, a religious broadcaster.

Robert Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University, notes that last summer, virtually everyone in the state assumed Terry would win ``in a cakewalk.''

``Three months ago, Terry had all the normal advantages of money and name recognition,'' Dr. Holsworth says. Instead of taking advantage, and knocking Allen out of contention, she ``squandered a lot of the money on ineffective campaign commercials,'' he says.

Ed DeBolt, a senior Republican political consultant in the state, agrees - noting that instead of working hard all summer, Terry's cohorts were trying to decide what apartments to rent in the state capital after the election.

``Suddenly Allen made it a race, and she looks desperate,'' says Mr. DeBolt, who says Terry's highly paid campaign consultants must have been ``asleep all summer.'' Terry raises emotional issues

Even so, Terry still has a shot if she can throw Allen on the defensive in the remaining 11 days, analysts say. Recently, she began taking several emotional issues to Allen:

* Handguns. Terry chides Allen for opposing a five-day wait to purchase handguns in Virginia. Allen has attempted to turn this issue around on Terry, however, by noting that crime rose significantly in Virginia during her term as attorney general.

* Abortion. Terry favors choice for women, and derides Allen as ``multiple choice'' for taking a sometimes-yes, sometimes-no position on abortion. Allen counters that he supports ``reasonable moderation'' on the abortion issue, including parental notification before an abortion for an unwed, minor daughter.

* Schools. Terry strongly supports public schools and opposes vouchers for private and parochial schools. Allen favors a local option for pilot projects to test vouchers.

Tom King, a Terry consultant, says the Democratic campaign took a turn for the better during the past week. He says Allen is hurting because Terry has begun tying him to ``the far right crowd,'' including Oliver North.

But Allen, who has won points for his affable manner, feels he has found Terry's weak point. At a recent gubernatorial debate, he chided Terry: ``You act as if you're not part of the Wilder-Robb-Clinton administration.''

Pollster Ali says that, for many voters, Terry's political ties to the governor and others is the issue that really matters. Ali says to halt Allen's momentum, Terry should have gone on the attack months ago.

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