Suddenly, as the fall foliage was fading and the ski resorts were gearing up for a new season, the national political spotlight swung to Vermont. Wearing a full beard grown during a late-summer sailing voyage, Republican Richard A. Snelling, former governor of the Green Mountain State, announced Oct. 17 that he would seek the Republican nomination for US senator next year.
Thus, responding to urging by President Reagan in an Oval Office meeting the previous day, Mr. Snelling answered his party's call and agreed to an almost certain face-off next fall against two-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy.
Besides its impact on the GOP's salvaging of its 53-to-47 majority in the Senate, the impending Leahy-Snelling match has enough intriquing aspects to make pastoral and traditionally Republican Vermont a prime media target for much of the 1986 election year:
Mr. Leahy, the state's first-ever Democratic US senator, is finishing his second six-year term. He now can present his seniority as an asset to Vermont. Despite narrow victory margins in both 1974 and 1980 (less than 1 percent the second time), Leahy's popularity rating has been very high in recent polls.
Mr. Snelling, Vermont's only four-term governor, served consecutive two-year terms from 1977 through 1984. His popularity across the state is at least a match for Leahy's. Known for both his party loyalty and independence, Snelling has remained active on the political scene since leaving office, campaigning nationally for a federal budget-balancing initiative (Proposition 1) sponsored by former Presidents Carter and Ford. Snelling has been very critical of Congress for not dealing effectively with the
Leahy's position as senior Democrat and vice-chairman of the key Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has enhanced his prestige at home while making him well-known nationally. He is also an articulate spokesman on agricultural matters.
Snelling has a reputation for forthrightness and has not hesitated to disagree with the White House on issues such as taxation. Although their brands of Republicanism are by no means identical, his individualism is compared to that of Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R) of Maryland, who caused some GOP consternation recently when he announced he would not seek reelection next year.
David Narsavage, director of the national Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, indicated the significance of Snelling's candidacy when he told The Monitor: ``Vermont was the last state in which we had the opportunity to present a single, first-tier candidate. If he had not agreed to run, we would have had to move to the second tier of possibilities.''
Although the National Republican Party has already earmarked $106,000 for the Snelling campaign and Senator Leahy is said to have a campaign fund in the $500,000 range, spokesmen for both sides say Vermont is not one of those states where the contestant who can purchase the most television time is likely to come out on top.
William Gray, campaign director for Senator Leahy, says his camp expects to be ``outspent'' and will begin next week to organize a ``legion of volunteers'' to canvass the state.
This will be a ``debate over the records of two people,'' says Mr. Gray. He sees Republican Snelling as concentrating on ``one issue: saving the nation from the deficit.''
Already the Leahy people are pointing out that Snelling left Vermont with a sizeable deficit in 1984 and that his remedies for the unbalanced budget, particulary higher taxes, don't coincide with the President's.
In the wake of the Snelling announcement, the GOP found a fortuitous occasion for some pre-campaign fence-mending.
Sitting between Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole of Kansas and Sen. Robert Stafford of Vermont at a state Republican fund-raising dinner Saturday, Snelling said he agrees with the White House that federal spending reductions should precede any tax increase.
Snelling faces a nominal primary challenge for the Republican senatorial nomination from Anthony Doria of South Royalton. Mr. Doria has twice before unsuccessfully run for the Senate.