Virginia Republicans look upon Warner as renegade Split in party could result in loss of seat to a Democrat in 1996

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NORFOLK, Va. -- Eight years ago, he spurned the Republican Party and voted against Robert H. Bork for the Supreme Court. Two years ago, he rejected the party nominee for lieutenant governor, Michael P. Farris, who lost. And in last year's Senate race, he supported an independent, rather than the Republican nominee, Oliver L. North. Mr. North lost, too.

To be sure, Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia is no longer the favorite son of many state Republicans. But this year, as he gears up to run for a fourth term in 1996, antipathy toward him has reached new heights, threatening to fracture the state party and deliver the seat to a Democrat for the first time in 30 years.

Conservatives and other party loyalists who have felt betrayed by Mr. Warner's independent streak have vowed to end his Senate career even if they have to sue.

"Party regulars are prepared to do everything they can to defeat him," said Mr. Farris, a conservative whose narrow loss in 1993 continues to resonate across the state: In legislative elections this month, Republicans and Democrats won the same number of seats in the state Senate, giving Donald S. Beyer Jr., the Democrat who defeated Mr. Farris, the tie-breaking vote.

"I'd be lieutenant governor now if it weren't for John Warner," Mr. Farris said sharply. "There's no question about that."

The idea of a lawsuit, scheduled for discussion at a state Republican meeting next week in Richmond, has grown out of the anger and debate among party leaders over whether to challenge a state law that allows the incumbent to choose the next nomination format -- a primary or a party convention.

Party leaders would prefer a convention, which tends to attract more conservatives than moderates. So would James C. Miller III, who is trying for the Senate again after losing to Mr. North at last year's convention.

Mr. Miller, a social conservative and former budget director in the Reagan administration, is scheduled to kick off his campaign Tuesday. He is supporting Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas for president.

Senator Warner, 68, who did not respond to attempts to interview him, has said he prefers a primary. It is easy to see why. In Virginia, one of the few states where voters do not register by party, a primary would give him the advantage of attracting independent and even Democrats who are put off by Mr. Miller's more extreme brand of conservatism.

Recent independent polls show Mr. Warner and Mr. Miller in a virtual tie among Republican voters, so the outside support would effectively ensure a Warner victory in the primary. The same polls show he would then easily defeat either of the Democrats expected to run: Mark Warner, the former state Democratic chairman -- no relation -- or Leslie Byrne, a former member of Congress.

For now, it appears Senator Warner will get the primary he wants. James S. Gilmore III, Virginia's attorney general, has said he could not conclude that it is unconstitutional.

That decision was viewed as a setback for Mr. Warner's opposition. But Mr. Gilmore also gave them a possible opening. He cited several cases outside of Virginia in which judges ruled that political parties have certain rights not bound by state law, raising hopes among some Virginia Republicans that a successful challenge could drag Mr. Warner into a convention.

"The party may not take action, but somebody's going to challenge the statute," said Patrick M. McSweeney, the state Republican chairman, who has been in the forefront of the anti-Warner forces.

But there is risk in winning a court fight, as Mr. McSweeney and other Republicans acknowledged. If the party used a convention to choose the nominee, Mr. Warner has indicated, he would run as an independent. Most experts believe that would split the Republican vote, giving the Democratic candidate the victory or enabling Mr. Warner to win with a patchwork of moderate Republican voters, moderate Democrats and independents.

If he lost in a primary, Mr. Warner would be barred by law from running in the general election as an independent.

The danger of pressing for a convention has alarmed many Virginia Republicans, including the five who serve in the House, a mix of moderates and conservatives.

They sent a letter this week to members of the state committee, urging them to nominate a candidate through a primary, rather than a convention. Thomas M. Davis, a Warner supporter who represents a Northern Virginia district, said a convention would "turn the party's big tent into a pup tent."

Energized by the polls, Mr. Miller, 53, attacked Senator Warner in an interview here yesterday for trying to position himself as a conservative -- calling him "a moderate liberal, or a liberal moderate, or a liberal conservative, but not a conservative."

Mr. Miller also asserted that Mr. Warner should not be dictating the state party's method of nomination after having refused to support its candidate last year.

"I don't believe the incumbent should make the choice," Mr. Miller said. "And the last person who should be telling the Virginia state party what to do is John Warner."

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