WAKEFIELD, Va. — Even before the crowd started gathering for last month's shad planking--Virginia's most celebrated bipartisan political ritual--it was clear that this year's edition of the customarily convivial cookout was not going to be any love feast.
Not with the 1994 contest for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Charles S. Robb threatening to rend both political parties asunder and send a warning to nervous Democratic and Republican leaders around the country.
The star attraction at the festival here was Iran-Contra protagonist Oliver L. North, who has sharply divided the GOP by his front-running bid for its Senate nomination.
Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia's highest-ranking Republican officeholder and the main speaker here, has warned that he will support an independent candidate if, at its June 4 convention, the GOP nominates North--who was convicted of aiding and abetting the obstruction of Congress' investigation of the Iran-Contra affair.
On the Democratic side, incumbent Robb has been so damaged by allegations of extramarital dalliances and attendance at cocaine parties that he faces a stiff primary challenge in his bid for a second term.
And he knows that if he wins the party's June 14 primary, former Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder is already positioning himself to oppose Robb as an independent candidate in the general election.
Illustrating the dissatisfaction with both front-runners, a poll of 610 likely voters by the local polling firm of Cooper & Secrest showed that about twice as many people expressed negative opinions as positive opinions about both Robb and North.
The turmoil in the Old Dominion reflects the widespread discontent around the country with politics and with the two major parties. This was signaled by the 19% vote for Ross Perot's 1992 presidential candidacy, the biggest share of the electorate to back any third-party candidate since ex-President Theodore Roosevelt ran on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912.
"It's another example of the two parties' being out of touch," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "A lot of voters are saying, 'We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it any more.' "
"Virginia is at an advanced stage of what's going on in politics throughout the country," said Benjamin Ginsberg, Johns Hopkins University specialist in elections and political parties. "Parties mean less and less, and each so-called party is breaking up into various wings."
The shad planking is not what it used to be. Conceived about 50 years ago as a beer bust for good ol' boy Democrats, it has expanded in recent years to take in women, blacks and, finally, even Republicans. Over time, some say, the event has also surrendered some of its folksy charm. At a planking, shad are nailed to boards and cooked over smoky trench fires.
"Mostly now you got politicians, lobbyists and reporters looking behind each other and trying to find some old guy in bib overalls to interview," said Robb's campaign press secretary, Bert Rohrer.
Old-timers grumbled that even the shad is no longer quite the same. The oily, bony fish that once flourished in local waters now must be imported from Delaware.
But a more serious complaint among the 4,000 who were here concerned the erosion of political stability.
"There's a lot more commotion and controversy than we used to have in the old days," said Nelson Jarrett, a retired engineer and political buff from Richmond. "Apparently morality and ethics aren't what they used to be. And the political parties haven't produced like they did before."
Some characteristics of the Virginia Senate campaign reflect complaints with the political process everywhere.
One is the emergence of powerful interest groups on both the left and the right that are accused of using the political process to advance their agendas. In the Republican contest, many feel that the religious right has provided the core of support for North.
"People are tired of the same old thing," said GOP state chairman Patrick McSweeney, who has remained neutral in the contest. "They really do believe in their frustration that this kind of politician (North) can make things change. They want someone who will not be sucked into the vortex."
North's aides say he has lined up about 60% of the delegates to the convention--leaving his chief rival, James Miller, former budget director for President Ronald Reagan, only 25%. The rest are undecided.
Miller says the contest is closer than that. He points out that his differences with North on issues are few, and he is basing his hopes on the argument that he has a better chance of beating the Democrats in November.
"We can't take the chance of losing the Senate seat," Miller told the crowd at the GOP reception. "We have to go with the conservative who can win."