GIVEN a choice, the candidates in Virginia's gubernatorial election would probably have preferred to focus on any subject other than abortion in the initial stages of the campaign. But like their counterparts in the New Jersey governor's race, the recent United States Supreme Court ruling on abortion has drawn them into early skirmishes over the issue. So far, the abortion debate has even overshadowed the historical aspect of the race: If he wins, Lt. Gov. L.Douglas Wilder would become the nation's first elected black governor.
Mr. Wilder, a Democrat, and his Republican opponent, J.Marshall Coleman, were clearly surprised by the sudden emergence of the abortion issue and the intensity surrounding it. As a result, both men have struggled to define their positions.
Wilder is generally seen as pro-choice, but abortion-rights advocates have criticized him for supporting legislation requiring parental notification and consent for minors who seek abortions. After the Supreme Court decision, he initially appeared to leave the door open for additional abortion limitations, but he now says he favors no changes in existing Virginia law, aside from parental notification.
During Mr. Coleman's tough primary campaign against two like-minded conservatives, he supported a constitutional amendment that would bar abortions, except in cases where the mother's life is in danger. But when Wilder pressed him on the subject in the campaign's first debate, Coleman moderated his position, saying that since Virginia's legislature is not likely to approve a near-total ban on abortion, he would not introduce such a bill.
Coleman, who forcefully outlined his anti-abortion views during the primary campaign, issued a statement after the debate which said, ``We should all lower our voices and listen to one another.'' But Wilder has criticized his opponent's milder rhetoric, saying it is an indication that Coleman has ``abandoned leadership'' on the issue.
Political analysts and party officials say they doubt abortion will continue to dominate the campaign, as it has to this point. ``The candidates will let it fade and you'll see other issues come to the fore,'' said Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia who has analyzed elections here for nearly two decades.
But with the Supreme Court due to hear arguments in three more abortion cases this fall, interest in the subject could resurface at a crucial time, according to activists on both sides of the issue.
On abortion, as well as a number of other topics, the candidates are carefully trying to carve out positions in the political center, which in the recent past has proved to be a successful tactic in this state. The last two chief executives, outgoing Gov. Gerald Baliles and now-Sen. Charles Robb, ran as moderate Democrats, and both were extremely effective vote-getters.
Thus, both current candidates have expressed strong support for tough new anti-drug measures and have vowed not to raise taxes. Because they have similar views on many issues, ``the election could simply come down to whether the voters want change, in the person of Coleman, or if they want to continue with a Democrat in the statehouse,'' said Thomas Morris, a political scientist at the University of Richmond.
But if there is an underlying theme in this election, it concerns race. Wilder has played down the historical significance of his campaign, and Coleman has publicly declared that ``there is no room for racial politics of any kind.'' Nevertheless, virtually every political analyst says race will have some effect on the outcome, although not necessarily to Wilder's disadvantage.
According to Henry Foster, a black who has been elected to the board of supervisors in rural Amelia County for the past 18 years: ``There is no question that there are whites who will not support a black man. But there are just as many people who want to show the nation that Virginia has changed.''