Virginia Democrats try Reagan tactics. Next year's vigorous political struggles hide behind '85 snoozer election

Virginia's race for governor (yawn) is being greeted here with a big Zzzzzzzz. Yet this little-watched race could be a trendsetter, not just in Virginia, but nationwide. It may signal a new, more vigorous Democratic and Republican struggle for crucial conservative votes in the 1986 and '88 elections.

Most important, Virginia Democrats may be showing their party how to co-opt Ronald Reagan's favorite campaign themes: patriotism, fiscal conservatism, and a brighter tomorrow.

Republicans are concerned. Rallying behind the Virginia GOP ticket with speeches and fund-raisers have been President Reagan, Vice-President George Bush, Senate majority leader Robert Dole, and a host of other party leaders.

The governor's election here next Tuesday pits Gerald L. Baliles, the Democrat, against Wyatt B. Durrette Jr., the Republican. Both are bland moderate-conservatives with few policy differences.

Beneath the quiet surface of this campaign, however, some important political forces are churning.

Mr. Baliles appears to have undercut the Republican Party's 18-year-old ``Southern strategy,'' born in the days of Richard Nixon. In doing so, Baliles has achieved several things at once: He has straddled the political center while putting one foot solidly in the conservative camp; at the same time, he has held liberal support while avoiding any action that would make it easy for Republicans to label him a liberal.

Baliles, for example, refused to go hat in hand seeking the endorsement of the AFL-CIO in Virginia. While this ruffled some union leaders, it played well with traditional, conservative Virginia Democrats.

Since the 1984 Mondale debacle, Democrats in the South have been especially keen to find a way of reversing their losses to Republicans. The GOP has been strengthening its grip on the South since the late 1960s by depicting Democrats as captives of the left -- the feminists, the labor unions, the civil rights movement.

In Virginia, once a Democratic bastion, Republicans have won three of the last four governor's elections and the last five presidential races. They hold both US Senate seats and a majority of the US House seats from the state.

Yet Baliles's campaign could mark an important turnaround. His tactics are right out of the textbook of the current Democratic governor, Charles S. Robb, whose own campaign, like Baliles's, was masterminded by media consultant David Doak.

Some Virginians attributed Governor Robb's popularity to personal charisma. His dignified, quiet manner (he's a former US Marine officer), his telegenic qualities, and his family connections as the son-in-law of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, all helped put Robb into office. Some Republicans argued that Robb was one of a kind.

Baliles may prove that is not true. He has taken the advice of Robb and other Sunbelt Democrats, such as Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, to move away from special-interest politics.

The result: a center-right strategy that has thrown a sharp-breaking political curve at Virginia Republicans.

The latest poll by the Washington Post found Democrat Baliles ahead 50 to 31, with 19 percent undecided. While the race has probably tightened since that poll was completed Oct. 6, Baliles is still a favorite.

As the race concludes, Durrette and Baliles are hurling hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of TV and radio ads at each other. But the important factor appears to be that Durrette has failed to hurt Baliles or give Virginians a strong reason to change parties. Baliles, who was Governor Robb's attorney general, has been able to run almost as if he were the incumbent.

At the same time, Durrette's campaign has been hampered by squabbling between the old-line, formerly segregationist faction led by ex-Gov. Mills E. Godwin, and the more moderate, traditional, ``mountain valley'' Republicans. The Washington Post, in endorsing Baliles, said Durrette's association with former Governor Godwin left the GOP ticket ``burdened with the heavy presence of a political past best left behind.''

Besides testing a fresh Democratic political strategy, this contest could alter Southern politics in another important way.

L. Douglas Wilder, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, has already made history as the first black to be nominated by a major party in the South for statewide office since Reconstruction. Mr. Wilder, a 15-year veteran of the state Senate, was considered the underdog because of his race; but, to the surprise of the state's political establishment, he is leading his white Republican opponent, state Sen. John H. Chichester, in the polls by a wide margin (48 to 26).

Edward DeBolt, who is Durrette's media strategist, notes that Virginians are ``accustomed to clear differences'' between the Republican (conservative) and Democratic (liberal) candidates.

``The Democrats now are trying to emulate the very strategy that we have used. . . .

Yet there's some duplicity in Baliles's positions, argues Mr. DeBolt. Even as he puts forth a center-right image, ``he is promising everything to environmentalists, labor, and teachers, knowing that he couldn't deliver.''

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