Gubernatorial Campaigns Illustrate Split-Level Nature of Politics in U.S. : Elections: Republican presidential hopefuls have carried Virginia and New Jersey since 1964. But the Democrats' activist image benefits state candidates.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Ronald Spiggle, Democratic county chairman in Appomattox County, Va., has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1980. But he plans to vote for the party's gubernatorial nominee, Douglas Wilder, on Nov. 7.

What's more, Spiggle is confident that Wilder, a black, will carry Appomattox County, where the war between the states ended. The county went for George Bush by 2 to 1 last November. "Most people think he's a moderate who will keep the state programs going," Spiggle says.

This fall's gubernatorial campaigns here in Virginia and in New Jersey underline the split-level nature of American politics and demonstrate the obstacles that Republicans face as they try to extend their dominance of the presidency to state and local government.

Republican presidential candidates have carried Virginia and New Jersey in every election since 1964. Yet opinion surveys suggest that Wilder is no worse than an even-money bet to defeat Republican J. Marshall Coleman in Virginia, while Democratic Rep. James J. Florio is so far ahead of Republican Rep. Jim Courter in New Jersey that some Republicans privately concede they have given up hope.

Republicans have enjoyed great success in presidential elections for the last 20 years, in large part because their candidates have been perceived as more committed to keeping America strong abroad and more likely to keep the economy out of trouble at home.

But in state and local elections, where Democrats do not face those issues, their candidates are able to compete on even terms--or better. Democrats now control 28 of the nation's governorships and 28 state legislatures, in good part because many voters seem to prefer them to handle the nuts-and-bolts problems of government--education, health care, highways--that touch directly on their lives.

That activist approach to government is contributing to Democrat Florio's big lead in New Jersey, analysts say. "Florio believes that government should get in there and deal directly with such issues as auto insurance rates and the environment," says Richard Roper, director of the Program for New Jersey Affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Roper notes that opinion polls show approval for Florio's proposals to tighten state regulation of auto insurance companies and to appoint a special prosecutor to clean up pollution. Republican Courter, by contrast, would deregulate the insurance industry and encourage private industry to avoid pollution through voluntary measures.

In Virginia, Democrat Wilder, the state's lieutenant governor, presents himself as the logical heir to eight years of successful Democratic problem-solving under former Gov. Charles S. Robb and incumbent Gerald L. Baliles.

"Baliles has been active across the board on education, transportation, environment and day care, and he has a 73% approval rating," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. As a result, he says, "Wilder is running as the candidate of progress and prosperity."

Democratic strengths in both states have been reinforced this fall by intensified concern over abortion, an issue that has forced both Republican candidates on the defensive. Before a Supreme Court decision last July gave the states wide latitude to regulate a woman's right to abortion, both Republicans had cast themselves as vigorous foes of the practice.

But after the ruling energized abortion-rights activists and caused widespread concern among women in general, Courter quickly announced that he "would not simply impose my personal views on the women of New Jersey."

And Coleman promised that he would not push for legislation to restrict abortion to cases where the mother's life was in danger, although this had been his position during the hard-fought primary campaign for the GOP nomination last spring.

The net upshot of these shifts, most analysts agree, has been to hurt the Coleman and Courter campaigns. Princeton's Roper, speaking of Courter's revised position, said: "It's made him look wishy-washy. It makes people wonder whether they could trust him if he had the authority to act."

Moreover, the controversy over abortion has made it harder for conservative Courter to win over supporters of New Jersey's popular two-term Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean, a moderate who holds more permissive views on abortion rights than Courter.

Similarly, in Virginia, the highlighting of the abortion issue has made it harder for Republican Coleman to claim the political middle ground, which is essential for victory.

"Coleman reached out to the political right in the primary by stressing abortion and painted himself into an ideological corner," says Mark Rozell, Mary Washington College specialist in Virginia politics. "Now he has to answer for it. Meanwhile, Wilder is presenting himself as an advocate of mainstream principles."

"I think most people are in favor of letting the abortion law stay the way it is," says C. L. Shank, a member of the town council in Harrisonburg, a community of 25,000 in the Shenandoah Valley, who had come here for a Virginia Municipal League conference. "Coleman stuck his neck out by taking an anti-abortion position."

Although the campaigns in New Jersey and Virginia both reflect overall political trends, each is also being influenced by special circumstances. The most obvious and probably the most significant is Wilder's race.

If this 58-year-old grandson of slaves wins, he would become the first black to be elected governor in the nation's history. And no one has worked harder to obscure that fact than Wilder, who is convinced that the more important race is as an issue, the worse are his chances of victory.

Asked by a reporter if he was satisfied that he had kept race out of the campaign, Wilder snapped: "Absolutely. So there is no need to discuss it. The key issue is leadership and qualifications as to who can continue to carry Virginia forward."

Some of his aides do not share Wilder's professed belief that race is not a factor. Frank Greer, Wilder's media adviser, says it lies behind Coleman's television commercials stressing his tough stand against crime, which appeared after racial disturbances in the resort city of Virginia Beach during Labor Day weekend.

"I don't think it's an accident they started running those commercials right after the trouble in Virginia Beach," Greer said. "I think it's a deliberate attempt to play on fears. I think they are trying to make people uneasy about Doug Wilder."

Coleman, a 47-year-old former state attorney general, responded: "That certainly isn't true. I think the question of crime and law and order is of great interest to all Virginians. We are suffering from a real epidemic of drug-related violence and crime in Virginia."

Many of the local officials at the Virginia Municipal League conference here seem to agree that race has not been a dominant issue in the campaign, at least overtly.

"I think we're beyond racism now," said Richard Glover, a member of the board of supervisors of Henrico County, north of Richmond, who credits Wilder's low-key style with undercutting the potential for bigotry. "I think when you push people, they get their backs up," he said. "It's better when you just let things happen."

"Race has not been a surface issue," said W. E. Ward, the vice mayor of Chesapeake, Va., and a black who is a history professor at Norfolk State University. "But racism is always a factor in American life."

John Giangola, an emergency-room physician in Winchester, Va., who was visiting a shopping center here, said he is convinced that race is an important if unadvertised force in the campaign.

"I'd be surprised if it wasn't," said Giangola, who came to Virginia 12 years ago from New York City. "I didn't understand what the civil rights revolution was about until I came South. And there is still a lot of prejudice around."

If the Virginia contest is set apart by the race issue, then the New Jersey campaign is notable for Democrat Florio's big advantage in name recognition over Republican Courter. This results from Florio's two previous unsuccessful campaigns for governor.

Weeks after Courter won the Republican nomination last June, polls and interviews with voters indicated that obscurity was still a problem for the 48-year-old Courter.

"Oh, you mean Florio against what's-his-name," said Phyllis Sollami, a Trenton office worker, when she was asked about the gubernatorial campaign.

"He's been a serious candidate for a long time," Courter said of Florio, maintaining that this had given voters a clearer picture of his opponent than of himself. "He started out that way, but I'm making rapid progress."

But even his supporters concede that Courter needs to step up his pace. Robert Werner, a Rutgers University junior and a Courter backer who came to hear his candidate speak at a campus forum, said: "Courter hasn't done a good job of getting his positions across. If he had set the agenda in the campaign, the abortion issue would not have been so important."

The 52-year-old Florio has his own explanation for his front-runner status and it might serve as a useful guide to other Democrats seeking governorships and perhaps even the presidency.

"What I'm doing is carving out a problem-solving approach, rejecting the doctrinaire approaches of the past," Florio said. "Courter has fallen into the trap of trying to shoehorn every problem into some ideological cubbyhole."

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