- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2000

Virginia's Democratic Party is rallying around technology tycoon Mark R. Warner now that Sen. Charles S. Robb, the last Democrat to hold statewide office, lost his seat to Republican ex-Gov. George F. Allen.

"I got fire in the belly," Mr. Warner said at Mr. Robb's election-night party in McLean. He said Mr. Robb's defeat has given him even more incentive to reclaim his party's glory days.

The commonwealth's voters next November will elect a new governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Each of those offices now is held by a Republican.

Democrats aim to claim at least one of these high offices to re-establish their once dominating presence in Virginia.

Mr. Robb's re-election defeat Tuesday means a new crop of electable Democrats will have to emerge, said state Sen. John S. Edwards, Roanoke Democrat.

"It is the passing of an era," said Mr. Edwards, a possible candidate for attorney general.

The Democrats are pinning their gubernatorial hopes on Mr. Warner, who in 1996 nearly defeated Republican Sen. John W. Warner.

He already has raised more than $1.1 million for his campaign, which likely will pit Attorney General Mark Earley against Lt. Gov. John Hager III.

After his concession speech Tuesday, Mr. Robb said the party's future rests with Mr. Warner.

"He's got a lot of young [supporters] who are ready to cut their teeth, who can put this thing together," Mr. Robb said.

Delegate Kenneth R. Plum, Reston Democrat and chairman of Virginia's Democratic Party for the past three years, said his party can't dwell on its recent defeats.

"Our future is not with our past leaders. It's with our bright, young, new members," said Mr. Plum. He did not exclude himself from the party's purges. He announced Tuesday he will not seek the chairmanship in February.

"We're a party in transition. The Democratic Party had a total hold on Virginia government for a century," he said.

Republicans, who have championed gun-rights and anti-tax agendas, control both Virginia's House and Senate and outnumber Democrats in the state's 11-member congressional delegation 6-to-4, with one Republican-leaning independent.

Delegate Jerrauld C. Jones, Norfolk Democrat, and Kate K. Hanley, chairwoman of Fairfax County's Board of Supervisors, have been touted as candidates for lieutenant governor.

"The problem with the Democratic Party is that we have … not done as good a job cultivating a new crop of leaders," Mr. Plum said.

Yet putting already-popular candidates such as Mr. Jones, who is black, up against Mrs. Hanley, who hails from the party's strongest geographic base, could lead to an expensive, divisive primary.

"Their challenge is to find strong Democratic candidates for down-ticket," said Mark J. Rozell, a political science professor at Catholic University.

Mr. Rozell noted that the loss of Charlottesville area state Sen. Emily Couric as a lieutenant-governor candidate makes it harder for the Democrats to rally around someone who could appeal to a wide array of voters.

"She's not a very easy person to replace," he said.

Mrs. Couric dropped out of the race for lieutenant governor in July after disclosing that she has pancreatic cancer.

From the mountains of Southwest Virginia to the shores of Virginia Beach, Democrats increasingly are finding themselves in the minority in a state once dominated by the party.

Since Mary Sue Terry lost the 1993 gubernatorial race to Mr. Allen, Democrats have searched unsuccessfully for a message that will resonate among Virginians.

"We need to define ourselves as a party and articulate our values," Mr. Edwards said.

But the Democrats have ceded issues they once called their own education, health care, transportation to the Republicans, who have successfully advocated conservative solutions to state problems.

"You have to give them [the Republicans] some credit. They have run some sophisticated campaigns," said Craig K. Bieber, executive director of the state Democratic Party.

To return the Democrats to power, Mr. Bieber suggested they focus more on "kitchen issues" like education, gun control and maintaining a pro-choice stance on abortion.

"We have to make the education issue more about funding," he said. "We need to be more aggressive in talking about issues that affect everyday lives. It's definitely a double-edged sword, and we have to be very careful in talking about those issues."

Democratic strongholds in Southwest, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads have been eroded by Republican strength, Mr. Bieber noted.

"We definitely need to do more work in the rural areas," he said. "We need to do a better job of appealing to voters in the outer suburban ring."

Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, said Wednesday that the Democrats are yearning for the past.

"The theme of the day is 'and then there were none,' " Mr. Gilmore said. "I think that the Democratic Party continues to have the mindset of being a dominant organization from the old days."

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