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National Perspective | POLITICS

GOP Cracks Showing in Virginia Primary

Party is backing Sen. Warner's rival. Incumbent failed to back fellow Republican North in '94.

June 11, 1996|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Sen. John W. Warner has won more statewide elections in Virginia than any Republican in the 20th century. He was seen as so invulnerable in 1990 that the Democrats didn't even field a candidate against him.

So why was the three-term incumbent boarding the commuter train from Fredericksburg to the Washington suburb of Alexandria a few days ago at the crack of dawn, working the weary-eyed passengers as if it were his first campaign, urging Republicans and Democrats to vote for him in today's open GOP primary?

The answer is that Warner, 69, is in the political fight of his life. He has been abandoned by much of the GOP's state leadership, who perceive him as insufficiently conservative and who have rallied behind a former Ronald Reagan administration official. Fueling the push to deny Warner renomination is what most of his foes view as an egregious political sin: his active opposition to the U.S. Senate candidacy of fellow Virginia Republican Oliver L. North in 1994.

In many ways, the heated primary is a microcosm of the national tensions within a party divided over who should control its agenda and how it should handle disagreement within its ranks.

Warner, a fiscal conservative, bears no semblance to a liberal, but he has taken relatively moderate positions on issues ranging from abortion rights to gun control.

His Republican opponent is James C. Miller III, 54, a federal budget director in the Reagan administration who has the support of the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Assn. Two years ago, Miller denounced North as a "fraud" when they battled for the GOP nomination in that year's Senate contest. But now Miller embraces the former Marine who was at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal.

North, in turn, has asked his supporters to help defeat Warner. He told cheering party activists at the state's recent GOP convention that Warner's refusal to support him against Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb in a tight race was "blasphemous" and an "unconscionable" betrayal.

Warner expresses no regret over his decision. At the time he declared that North, whose convictions on offenses related to shielding information from Congress about the Iran-Contra deal were overturned, was unfit to serve in the Senate.

"Eighty percent of John Warner's problems right now are related to North," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who backed North two years ago and is now Warner's campaign chairman. "But I think the party would be stupid not to renominate Warner. . . . We've got to be able to forgive and turn the other cheek."

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But not everyone is offering clemency. At a recent rally, Warner's surrogate speaker was greeted with cries of "Traitor" and "Go home." Said Miller: "[Warner] stabbed the party in the back, and now he's demanding we carry him on our shoulders as the party nominee. He's got to be kidding."

The fierce intraparty fight has lapped into presidential politics. Sen. Bob Dole, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, shunned requests from Miller supporters to stay out of the fray and has appeared in Virginia with Warner, ostensibly to push for a balanced budget. That caused some North supporters to warn that Dole was jeopardizing his own chances in what should be a safe Republican state this November.

Polls have shown Warner with a comfortable lead over Miller, who at best is a lackluster campaigner. Warner also has raised nearly twice as much money as Miller. But Miller is hoping to benefit from the intensity of his support.

At the recent state convention, which was controlled by Miller forces and which Warner did not attend, the challenger won a 3-1 straw-poll victory. And North retains a loyal following, which he has cultivated as a radio talk-show host since his defeat.

But North's denunciations of Warner could hurt Miller by galvanizing Democrats and independents to participate in the GOP primary and, in effect, vote against North. Indeed, a poll released late last week showed that Warner's lead over Miller increased in the wake of North's fiery convention speech.

The primary winner will face a heavy-spending Democratic challenge from telecommunications tycoon Mark Warner (no relation to the senator), who is worth a reported $100 million.

The insurrection against John Warner--former secretary of the Navy, veteran of World War II and the Korean War and an ex-husband of actress Elizabeth Taylor--has been a long time brewing. Republican conservatives have never been comfortable with his willingness to break ranks.

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He irked them in 1987 as one of only six GOP senators to oppose Robert H. Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court. He has supported gun-control measures, spoke in favor of limiting abortion rights and took issue with aspects of the Republicans' "contract with America" for not doing enough to protect the environment. In 1993, he refused to back the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, Michael P. Farris, a former Moral Majority official. Farris lost the general election.

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