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POLITICS : Virginia Races Help Put the Fate of Major Parties in Spotlight : Bourne-Puller state election is one of a handful that will be watched to gauge strength of Democrats, GOP in South.


WASHINGTON — In the less-than-glamorous world of state politics, this fall's race between Sandy Liddy Bourne and Linda (Toddy) Puller for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates has emerged as an obvious standout. Indeed, as a political potboiler, it almost writes itself.

Republican candidate Bourne is the daughter of G. Gordon Liddy, the Watergate burglar turned wildly successful conservative talk show host. Puller, the Democratic incumbent, is the widow of a severely disabled Vietnam veteran, Lewis B. Puller Jr., who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography in 1992 before killing himself last year.

But even with a story like that, Bourne and Puller find themselves in supporting roles--part of a larger scenario that will play out in elections next Tuesday. In a handful of Virginia state legislative races and, to a lesser extent, gubernatorial contests in Kentucky and Mississippi, national political leaders and analysts will sift through the results for clues about the long-term fates of the two major parties.

A string of wins by GOP candidates not only would fuel the party's hopes of winning the 1996 presidential campaign, but offer further proof that the so-called "Republican revolution" is just that: a fundamental political realignment, especially in the South.

Democrats, meanwhile, will be looking for signs that their future prospects in the South, where the party suffered an across-the-board battering in 1994, may not be so bad after all. At the least, a respectable Democratic showing would give the party a much needed boost heading into 1996.

"Both national parties are watching these races pretty closely, which just raises the hype and the stakes," said Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington political analyst.

It is in this context that the Virginia legislative contests have assumed such importance. Republicans, who have not held a majority in either house of the Virginia General Assembly for more than a century, need to pick up just three seats in the 40-member Senate and four in the 100-member House of Delegates to capture both. If the party is successful, Virginia will become the first Southern state to have a GOP majority in both houses since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period.

The Republicans broke through a similar barrier last year, when they captured lower houses in North and South Carolina and state senates in Florida and Tennessee. Until that time, the GOP had never won a single chamber in the South since Reconstruction.

The Republican charge in Virginia is being led by ambitious Gov. George F. Allen, whose conservative agenda has mirrored that of national Republicans. And borrowing a tactic that worked so well for Republicans in 1994, this year's state legislative candidates signed a seven-part "Pledge for Honest Change" similar to the national GOP's "contract with America."

Allen has much at stake in the upcoming elections. His attempts to cut state payrolls, education spending and other social programs while granting a tax break were stymied by the Democratic-controlled Legislature earlier this year. So on top of the election's national implications, analysts are further burdening the Virginia electorate with the weight of Allen's political future.

A Republican takeover of the Legislature "would really be a stunning ratification of the governor," Rothenberg said.

"Allen is clearly on the line," agreed Bill Wood, founder of the Virginia Institute of Political Leadership, a nonpartisan foundation that assists candidates for state office. Governing the first Southern state with an entirely GOP-controlled Legislature would heighten Allen's national profile, making him a vice-presidential prospect for the 1996 ticket, Wood added.

Wood also said that even as the Virginia legislative races take on national significance, the battle in the state ultimately will be decided more at a district-by-district level. "The bottom line is that it is almost entirely a local race," he said.

In the Northern Virginia race pitting Bourne against Puller, the GOP challenger is stressing a get-tough-on-crime platform that she hopes will score points with suburban voters in the traditionally Democratic district. And like her celebrity father, Bourne strongly opposes gun control. Her pro-choice stand on abortion, however, distinguishes her from her dad.

Puller, who supports gun-control measures, has focused her campaign on education, emphasizing the importance of school spending she fought hard to save from Allen's budget ax last year.

"It would clearly be an upset if Bourne won," Wood said. "If we knew early in the evening that Bourne had gotten that seat, it could be an indication that Republicans have taken the house."

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