- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Six months after polls showed Sen. Charles S. Robb lagging behind Republican challenger George F. Allen by as much as a dozen points, the gap has closed and the race is shaping up as a close contest between two popular political veterans.

It's quite a turnaround from the closing days of 1999, when the word on the Robb campaign was "dead" one pundit called him "dead meat" and Salon, the on-line magazine, published an article asking: "Dead Senator Running?"

In hindsight, pollsters and campaigners say, it's obvious the early polls were just wrong. They didn't accurately account for likely voters, voters hadn't focused yet, or they were still on the GOP bandwagon after Republicans won control of the statehouse in November.

Mr. Robb said in an interview last week he wasn't surprised by his early deficit in the polls.

"I've said from the beginning we're going to have a tough race. It's going to go down to the wire, and when it's all over I expect to emerge victorious, but I don't expect it to be easy, and I don't expect to get any time off between now and Nov. 7," Mr. Robb said.

The Allen campaign sounded the same note.

"Polls have shown us ahead, polls have shown us behind. The only poll that counts is on Nov. 7," said Tim Murtaugh, an Allen campaign spokesman.

It's fitting that Mr. Robb and Mr. Allen, both very popular men in Virginia, are the two gladiators carrying their party's colors into the race.

Mr. Robb was the Democrats' bright hope in 1981 when he won the governorship, ending a 12-year Republican hold on it.

Mr. Allen knocked Democrats from the governor's office 12 years later with his 1993 victory, beginning a Republican resurgence that continues.

The polls are now deadlocked, but the race is really just beginning.

"All this means right now is that the party loyalists have lined up behind their guy," said Robert Holsworth, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Mr. Robb attributed his early deficit in the polls to Mr. Allen's having recently left the office.

"You have clear advantages if you've just been governor. I had the same advantages in 1988," he said. "But then the credibility of what you say comes into question at some point."

Mr. Robb has made credibility an issue early in the campaign and has said Mr. Allen is trying to revamp his record on education and other social issues in an effort to appeal to centrist voters.

The Allen campaign has gone on the offensive with accusations that Mr. Robb has been a silent senator for the last 12 years, staying inside the Beltway and touring the rest of Virginia only when it was time for an election.

Even some Democrats said early on that Mr. Robb would need to reintroduce himself to the voters.

Mr. Robb has spent recent weekends doing just that.

On one recent weekend he made Democratic dinners in Alexandria and Arlington on Friday; spoke to the state chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, attended the Fairfax County Fair and the Scottish Highland Games and Irish Festival in Fredericksburg on Saturday; and visited two churches, two restaurants and two Democratic gatherings on Sunday.

The next day Mr. Robb was at McLean High School in Fairfax County to hand over a ceremonial check for $1.75 million money the county will use to put 14 more police officers in schools.

The money came from an amendment Mr. Robb authored to carve money for school police officers from President Clinton's community policing, or COPS, program the backbone of the president's promise to put 100,000 new police officers on the streets.

Having a record to run on is a big advantage for Mr. Robb, whereas Mr. Allen has to roll out policy speeches and rely on campaign promises.

Mr. Allen has significantly outdone Mr. Robb in fund raising so far, but Democrats predict Mr. Robb will be able to raise enough money to compete.

In reality, both men present a real contrast for voters.

Mr. Robb is a budget hawk who voted for and defends the 1993 Clinton budget package as having produced the economic boom over the last seven years. Mr. Holsworth predicted he'll use some of the same issues as other Democrats gun control, drug benefits for seniors in his campaign.

Mr. Allen is a tax cutter who criticizes Mr. Robb's 1993 vote and tried, but failed, to get a $1.4 billion tax cut through the statehouse as governor. He has a strong record on crime, having abolished parole. And he feels confident running on his education record, having revamped the state's Standards of Learning.

With differences like that, observers say, there's the promise of a race based on issues.

Paul Goldman, who ran former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's campaign in 1989, said that where in most races voters hold their nose and pull the lever for the one they dislike least, this race pits two generally well-liked men against each other. They will have to win or lose on the issues.

In the end, though, the race for the Senate seat may turn on something else: timing.

"Allen's biggest advantage has nothing to do with Allen. It has to do with the calendar. It's a presidential election year in a Republican state. You're going to have all kinds of people who haven't voted before," Mr. Goldman said.

Barring the outlandish, Virginia will support Texas Gov. George W. Bush overwhelmingly in November. Since 1950, state voters have only once given a Democrat the state's electoral votes for President Johnson in 1964.

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