IN a campaign short on issues, the three men competing today in the first Republican gubernatorial primary in this state in 40 years have relied heavily on negative television and radio advertising to get voters' attention. Former United States Sen. Paul Trible, who until recently held a comfortable lead in the race for the nomination, slipped into a virtual tie with former state Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman. US Rep. Stan Parris trails by a small margin, according to recent statewide polls. Pollsters and state political experts rate the election a tossup.
The candidates share basic conservative philosophies, and they stressed similar themes during the campaign. Each, for example, vowed to institute tough new anti-drug trafficking measures.
Since Mr. Coleman and Mr. Parris had few disagreements with front-runner Trible over issues, both began to run ads earlier this spring pointing up alleged past mistakes of the former senator.
``The commercials were really the only way they had of cutting Trible's lead down to size,'' says Thomas Morris, a political science professor at the University of Richmond. ``It is axiomatic that, unless they go too far, negative ads will change polling figures.''
One of Parris's commercials focused on a vote Trible cast in favor of statehood for the District of Columbia when he served in the House of Representatives.
Although the vote was more than a decade ago and Trible has long since renounced it, the ad states that Trible's support for statehood could have resulted in the district being granted two senators, whose ``liberal votes would cancel out Virginia's.''
COLEMAN has attacked Trible in far more personal terms. In one commercial an announcer charges that Trible ``quit the United States Senate because he's afraid to fight for his seat.''
The ad goes on to show a campaign photo of the former senator, who never served in the US military, in a service uniform. ``He campaigns on TV in a uniform he never wore, in a plane he never flew,'' the announcer says.
In 1987, Trible announced he would not seek reelection to the Senate, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. Had he run, he says he would have been ``more worried about winning than losing.''
But even Trible supporters privately admit that the ``quitter'' charge made by Coleman has been difficult to refute, particularly since he embarked on this campaign so soon after leaving office.
``It has clearly had an effect,'' says one supporter.
The former senator has retaliated with some negative radio commercials of his own, including one that alleges that Coleman once said marijuana use was not a serious problem.
While aides to all three men acknowledge that the campaign has become more fractious in recent weeks, they say the ads have helped educate an electorate not used to voting in Republican primaries. For the past 40 years, the party had used a state convention to select its nominees. ``Negative ads have a constructive purpose in setting the record straight,'' says Dennis Petersen, Coleman's spokesman.
But the charges being traded by Republicans this spring could also provide ammunition for Lt. Gov. Douglas Wilder, the Democratic nominee, to use in the general election campaign.
``Wilder could successfully revive some of these issues in the fall,'' says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
Mr. Wilder, who is trying to become Virginia's first black governor, had only token opposition in his run for the Democratic nomination.
As a result, he has been able in his speeches and television ads to present what his media consultant calls ``a solid and positive message.''