WASHINGTON -- The nation's only black governor accused President Bush yesterday of seeking to use polarizing racial issues to help ensure his re-election in 1992.
Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's remarks to a forum sponsored by the conservative National Review were part of a renewed, and growing, national debate over affirmative action.
But Mr. Wilder, 59, who is fashioning a possible Democratic presidential candidacy around conservative populist themes, also seemed to be attempting a pre-emptive strike over an issue that could work to Republican advantage in 1992.
Accusing Mr. Bush of sacrificing his campaign promises "for political expedience and re-election," Mr. Wilder said the president had embraced "the phony issue of racial quotas for the sake of political expediency."
Mr. Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990 late last month, claiming it would lead to hiring quotas. Conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., aggressively pushed the quota issue in his successful re-election fight against a black Democratic challenger.
Mr. Wilder, saying the president had "laid the groundwork" for Mr. Helms, described Mr. Bush as the "leading apologist" for an alleged Republican intimidation campaign against black voters in North Carolina.
"It seems that the president has decided that he needs the senator from North Carolina and his supporters across the nation if he himself is to win re-election in 1992," the governor said. "As a result, he has demonstrated a willingness to mortgage the moral authority of the White House to avoid alienating" Mr. Helms.
A White House spokesman had no comment yesterday on the governor's remarks.
Mr. Wilder's speech followed by one day the release of a letter he sent to Mr. Bush raising many of the same points.
The governor told reporters after his address that he does not agree with those who regard job quotas as a wedge issue that will help Republicans gain crucial white votes in 1992.
"Forget who it will help and who it will hurt," he said, calling for early congressional action next year to approve the Civil Rights Act, which fell one vote short of winning enactment over Mr. Bush's veto. Democratic leaders in Congress have already said they will make the measure a top priority in the new session that begins in January.
Mr. Wilder ducked a question about whether he was attempting to confront the issue of race early in a presidential campaign, much as he tried to do in his 1989 Virginia gubernatorial campaign.
Less than one year into his term as governor, Mr. Wilder has emerged as the most active political figure on the early presidential circuit. Top aides to Mr. Wilder last week formed a political action committee that could be turned into a presidential campaign organization, though the governor insisted yesterday its purpose was only to aid fiscally responsible candidates.
In his luncheon speech, the governor laid out many of the themes of a possible presidential run, contrasting his "new mainstream" approach with the "new extremism" of the Bush administration and strongly criticizing national Democrats in Washington along with Republicans.
Referring to his proposal to remedy a $1.4 billion state revenue shortfall in Virginia through cutbacks and layoffs, rather than a tax increase, Mr. Wilder said he was "putting necessities before niceties, priorities before pork [and] having government that . . . lives within its means."
"It is time to get this country moving forward again, and I believe there is only one way to do it," the governor said. "By electing a Democrat for president who understands that both domestic and foreign policies must be balanced upon a steady fulcrum of fiscal responsibility."