WASHINGTON -- Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's long-shot candidacy for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination moved closer to the starting line yesterday when he authorized formation of an exploratory committee.
The new committee will enable him to begin raising money for a 1992 race, a process that must start early for candidates who lack a national financial base or the ability to amass large sums of money in a relatively short period.
Mr. Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor, has scarcely concealed his presidential aspirations. His filing with the Federal Election Commission seems almost daring, however, at a time when the big news in Democratic circles is the virtual absence of presidential-candidate activity.
He is the first Democrat to reach the exploratory stage except for former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, an even longer long shot who has not held public office in more than six years.
During his first 15 months as governor, Mr. Wilder has traveled widely and spoken out frequently on national and international issues.
Like most Democrats, he opposed President Bush's decision to use force against Iraq, an issue Republicans hope to make a major part of next year's campaign.
In a December 1990 interview, Mr. Wilder told The Sun that he favored a negotiated settlement and would not object to a deal that gave Iraq an outlet on the Persian Gulf, adding: "You've got to allow them an opportunity at all costs to save some degree of face."
A 20-year veteran of statehouse politics in Richmond, Mr. Wilder has striven to develop a tight-fisted reputation on fiscal matters. He was able during the recent legislative session to close a $2 billion budget gap without increasing taxes.
And while he has criticized his party's leadership as being out of touch with mainstream America, his moderate conservatism has led many Democratic leaders to view him as an antidote to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, perhaps the most polarizing major figure in national politics today.
Mr. Wilder's first formal step toward a presidential run was taken in a letter, dated Monday, authorizing creation of a presidential committee. It came two days after Mr. Jackson disclosed that he would decide by fall whether to make a third presidential bid, but Wilder aides denied any connection.
Paul Goldman, the Virginia Democratic Party chairman and Mr. Wilder's closest political adviser, declined to say why the governor had decided to move now, and Mr. Wilder could not immediately be reached for comment.
Mr. Goldman said he detected at last weekend's Democratic National Committee meeting in Washington a "growing interest in fiscal realism and a challenge to conventional wisdom," the central elements of a Wilder candidacy.
Mark R. Warner, the exploratory committee's treasurer, said Mr. Wilder needed to begin raising money now because, unlike other potential Democratic candidates, he does not have an active campaign committee, since he is barred by law from succeeding himself as governor.
Late last year, Wilder associates formed a political action committee to promote the governor's conservative fiscal themes. The PAC never raised any money and is being disbanded, said Mr. Warner, who managed Mr. Wilder's 1989 gubernatorial campaign.
In the interests of full public disclosure, Mr. Wilder has decided to skip the testing-the-waters phase of the presidential process, in which candidates may raise and spend money and report it only after they declare their candidacy, Mr. Warner said. An FEC spokesman said that, in the eyes of campaign regulators, Mr. Wilder is now a full-fledged presidential candidate, whether or not he has actually decided to become one.