NEWPORT NEWS, VA. — After speaking at a soggy campaign event in this oceanside town, Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia sits in an aide's Ford Explorer discussing his reelection bid. Suddenly, he grabs the aide by the shoulder, and points down a nearby sidewalk. "Blue shirt!" he barks. "Go get that guy in the blue shirt!"
Within seconds, Mr. Warner has bolted from the truck, trotted 40 yards, and confronted the bemused man: a reporter for a small Virginia newspaper. The man had written a favorable story, Warner explains later, and he wanted to thank him.
It's not often that a three-term senator jogs after a journalist, especially in a chilly rainstorm. But this is no ordinary election.
Warner is engaged in a bitter GOP primary contest against James Miller, a former Reagan budget director. Like congressional races from Texas to Minnesota, this intraparty feud focuses on social issues.
Warner, who opposes a constitutional amendment to ban abortion and supports background checks for gun buyers, is generally considered a member of the GOP's moderate, establishment wing. Mr. Miller, by contrast, is drawing support from conservative activists with his tough stands against abortion and gun control.
"This race is a bellwether for how the two factions are stacking up for control of the Republican Party," says Mark Rozell, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "It would certainly send a strong message about the power of social conservatives if a three-term incumbent is toppled in his quest for renomination by a candidate who is running primarily with their support."
Virginia is a perfect laboratory to study the Republican rift. In its northern suburbs near Washington and its eastern reaches, the state is dominated by Warneresque Republicans and conservative Democrats whose prime concerns are fiscal.
Yet west of I-95, and in cities like Lynchburg and Virginia Beach, Christian conservatives hold sway. Virginia is home to both Jerry Falwell, one-time head of the Moral Majority, and Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition. In the past two decades, these groups have mobilized in all levels of politics, installing like-minded officials in hundreds of slots. They count the current Virginia GOP chairman, Patrick McSweeney, as one of their own.
"They go and fill a meeting hall with people who've never showed up at a political meeting before," says a top-ranking Virginia Republican. "They vote for their guy, that person becomes the unit chairman, and then they vanish. They're very skillful at that. They're tireless workers."
In Virginia, this growing divide came to a head in 1994 during Oliver North's controversial Senate race against Democrat Charles Robb. Although Mr. North, a former Reagan military adviser, was known for his involvement in the 1986 Iran-contra arms deal, his views on social issues and his patriotic message won the admiration of conservative activists.
Warner never joined the North bandwagon. In fact, he opposed North and worked to undermine his campaign. Shortly after North's defeat, state GOP chairman McSweeney promised that Warner would be "dealt with" in 1996.
In retrospect, Warner frames his opposition to North as a sign of conviction. "I have spoken my conscience and put principle ahead of politics, so I've got myself a race," he says.
To be sure, this primary challenge is Warner's first ever and marks a dramatic departure from his last race in 1990, which he won with 84 percent of the vote. Because primaries are rare in Virginia politics, the determining factor this time could be voter turnout. If high, polls suggest that Warner will triumph grandly. But because conservative activists are such assiduous voters, a low turnout could spell doom for the incumbent.
Mr. Miller, whose campaign is nearly broke, has rallied activists by questioning Warner's conservatism and by portraying him as a "Clinton Republican." In one poll, Christian conservatives gave Warner a 31 percent approval rating.
According to Miller campaign spokesman Bill Kling, Warner has alienated social conservatives with his abortion stance and annoyed fiscal conservatives with his unabashed desire to send federal money back to his district. "For all his dancing away from party, Warner will have to pay the piper," Mr. Kling says. "He calls it political courage. Most of us call it plain old political stupidity."
Kling argues that in recent years establishment Republicans like Warner have kept social conservatives "at arm's length" and even treated them with disdain. This has often sent them into defeat.
For his part, Warner has attacked Miller as a political opportunist. Warner has openly invited Democrats to vote for him in the Republican primary as a way of thanking him for his opposition to North. And he touts his Senate seniority and position on the Armed Services Committee as boons for this military-dependent state. "What in the world would a freshman senator bring that I couldn't?" he asks.
Yet to many party faithful, this squabble is a disaster that has dimmed hopes of retaining Warner's seat. "The social-issue divide in the GOP is a knife's edge," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio. "The Republican Party needs all of its elements to win this election. But lately, if one faction comes to dominate, it drives the others away."