A Noted Name Under Assault in Virginia

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Ask Charles Robb, two-term democratic Senator from Virginia, just what he was doing for those two terms, and first he says, "There's a lot of different ways to look at legislative success." Then he counts the ways: putting through $220 million for ship maintenance and construction, raising military pay and brokering a large civil-rights settlement for black farmers who claimed the Agriculture Department had refused them loans and other supports. But even Robb ends up characterizing the list as "a lot of little things like that."

Once upon a time, Robb was regarded as presidential material — a square-shouldered moderate who had commanded a rifle company in Vietnam, married Lyndon Johnson's daughter and co-founded the Democratic Leadership Council that dragged the party back to the political center. Now, at 61, he's one of the Senate's most endangered incumbents, running a campaign in which he seems to have the bearing of a Senator but not the substance. Polls have him running anywhere from 3 to 10 points behind his Republican challenger, George Allen, son of a former Washington Redskins coach and, like Robb, a former Virginia Governor. Eager not to abandon one of the party's better-known names, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has been spending freely in recent months to keep Robb afloat. As Senate minority leader Tom Daschle has put it, "We'll do anything he wants us to."

The question is, Just what does Robb want to do? In two recent debates, he was quick to debunk his opponent's policy ideas but suggested few of his own. And Allen has relentlessly exploited Robb's somewhat aimless campaign. The 48-year-old challenger says Robb is out of touch with "Virginia values," meaning the antitax, socially conservative beliefs Allen happily epitomizes. Allen has also promised that as Senator, he would introduce a $1,000-to-$2,000 "education tax credit" bill to help parents buy computers and school supplies, even if their kids attend private schools, which would make it a kind of below-the-radar voucher.

Robb says much of his Senate career has been conducted behind the scenes — the Intelligence Committee, one of four on which he sits, does much of its work in private. His campaign team is frustrated by Allen's in-your-face approach and his habit of harping on the 50¢-per-gal. gas-tax hike Robb proposed in 1993. They're trying desperately to focus on Robb's strengths, such as his support for the Balanced Budget Act in the Senate and his success as Governor in raising teachers' salaries. As strategist David Doak put it, "You can't spend all your time trying to correct the record."

Or running away from it. Robb says he will not change his beliefs — he is pro-choice and pro–gun control — even if they are too liberal for a right-leaning state like Virginia. "I'm looking to win," said Robb last week, "but not for the wrong reasons or at all costs." This time around, he may be more battle weary than ready.