FALLS CHURCH, Va. — "The more optimistic candidate is going to win, the one still laughing on the last weekend of the campaign," Virginia gubernatorial candidate Don Beyer told supporters last week at a restaurant in this Washington suburb.
But the campaign's course is making it difficult for Beyer, the state's incumbent lieutenant governor, to maintain his normally sunny outlook. It's not just the predictably stiff opposition from his Republican foe, James Gilmore, but surprising criticism he has faced from his own party leaders that threatens to ruin not only Beyer's disposition, but his candidacy in one of the nation's two 1997 gubernatorial races.
Just as he was gearing up for his post-Labor Day push, Beyer's positions came under fire from the state's last Democratic governor, L. Douglas Wilder, and from its highest elected Democratic officeholder, Sen. Charles S. Robb.
"I have heard from any number of Democrats who are asking: 'What does [Beyer's] campaign stand for?' " complained Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor. Wilder is considering not endorsing Beyer, and perhaps even backing Gilmore.
From a broader perspective, the Democratic dissension in Virginia reflects the difficulties both parties face around the country as they struggle to redefine themselves in this era of divided government and eroding allegiances among voters.
On the national level, the GOP recently suppressed a mutiny by House conservatives over the leadership of Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. In the Senate, a dispute continues between its moderate and conservative wings over the nomination of former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld to be ambassador to Mexico.
Democrats, meanwhile, are girding for a potentially divisive battle over the party's direction and leadership during the 2000 presidential primaries. President Clinton's "new Democrat" philosophy twice won him the White House, but party liberals have chafed under it.
In Virginia, the problems confronting the party system are magnified by a structure of government that impedes efforts to establish enduring alliances. The state is the only one left in the union that limits governors to one term in office.
Party fragmentation in Virginia reached something of a zenith in 1994 when Wilder and a moderate Republican both ran as independent candidates in the U.S. Senate race in which Robb, the incumbent, ultimately defeated the regular GOP nominee, Iran-Contra figure Oliver L. North.
Since then, the Republicans appear to have pulled themselves together, helped by a booming economy that has boosted GOP Gov. George F. Allen's image and brightened the party's hopes of holding onto his office. This has made it easier for Gilmore, who was elected attorney general four years ago but recently quit to focus on the governor's race, to maintain the sometimes uneasy alliance between the state's traditional conservatives and the Christian right.
"The Christian right smells a winner in Gilmore," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
But on the Democratic side, Beyer has had a hard time maintaining unity as he seemingly strives to follow the centrist course charted nationally by Clinton.
Beyer, a former president of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce and owner of a thriving Volvo dealership in the community, describes himself as "a business Democrat."
"I worry about financial statements every day of my life," he said recently. "I worry about job creation. I worry about profit. And it gives me a different perspective on education and the work force and everything else."
But Beyer is having difficulty reconciling that perspective with the demands of traditional Democratic constituencies, whose votes he needs for victory. That dilemma was illustrated this summer when Gilmore proposed a phased-out elimination of Virginia's personal property tax on autos and trucks, a much-resented levy that costs car owners up to $900 a year.
Beyer first denounced the idea as irresponsible, then countered with his own limited and more complicated version. But not only did Beyer's proposal fail to win over voters, polls showed, it opened him to attacks from Robb and Wilder. Robb complained that Beyer's plan, like Gilmore's, lacked "fiscal discipline and long-range responsibility."
Given Wilder's power base within Virginia's black community, his displeasure could be especially significant at the ballot box in November when Virginia, along with New Jersey, holds its gubernatorial election.
Wilder has accused Beyer of pandering to black voters by running an ad in an African American newspaper laced with traditional Democratic rhetoric while, on the campaign trail, he stresses more conservative fiscal positions.
Gilmore, meanwhile, has done his part to confuse traditional party loyalties by making his own bid for black votes. As attorney general, he took a leading role last year in the effort to crack down on the wave of burnings of predominantly black churches in the South. "The goal there was to send a message that when I'm governor of Virginia . . . we are going to bring everybody to the table," Gilmore said.