Democrat Wilder enters '92 presidential race Va. governor to wage an outsider campaign

September 14, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

RICHMOND, VA. — RICHMOND,Va. -- Less than two years after being sworn in as the nation's first elected black governor, Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia entered the 1992 presidential race yesterday with a toughly worded attack on President Bush's civil rights record.

An acknowledged long shot, Mr. Wilder, 60, plans to wage an outsider campaign that blames the Washington establishment of both major parties for the nation's ills. At the same time, he intends to portray himself as a centrist Democrat with a proven record as a tight-fisted government manager.

"I want my legacy to be that I expanded the economic and political rights of all men and women," he said in an announcement speech thick with references to Virginia's rich political heritage.

He accused Mr. Bush of deliberately seeking to divide black and white Americans by raising "the phony and divisive issue of racial quotas" and "turning back the clock on civil rights."

Mr. Wilder, who had kept his decision secret even from close aides and supporters until just hours before announcing it publicly, said Mr. Bush had retreated from a commitment to expanded civil rights that had been honored by every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, including Ronald Reagan.

In ticking off the names of FDR's successors, Mr. Wilder failed to mention the last Democratic president, fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter. After reporters pointed out the omission, which Mr. Wilder said was inadvertent, he personally telephoned Mr. Carter to apologize.

Mr. Wilder is the second announced candidate in a Democratic presidential race distinguished mainly by the apparent unwillingness ofthe party's best-known figures to challenge Mr. Bush, whose popularity approaching the start of the election year is higher than that of any incumbent president in a generation.

Democratic National Chairman Ronald H. Brown, who along with other Democratic politicians has sometimes found himself at odds with the prickly Virginia governor, welcomed Mr. Wilder's entry into the race and said that he "has the ideas and the deftness to wage a strong campaign against this Republican do-nothing president."

Despite their personal differences with Mr. Wilder, many Democrats see him as an antidote to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, whose 1984 and 1988 campaigns divided the party and, in the view of some analysts, damaged its chances in the general election. Mr. Jackson plans to meet with his advisers this weekend amid reports that he will not be a candidate in 1992.

Mr. Wilder, a Jackson rival, refused to let the civil rights leader campaign for him in his race for governor but would clearly like to inherit his supporters in the presidential contest if he doesn't run.

Mr. Wilder played down racial issues while seeking office in this predominantly white, conservative state, but he spoke yesterday his roots as the grandson of slaves and referred repeatedly to "the dream" of racial equality. He also borrowed a formulation favored by Mr. Jackson in stressing the need to "lift all the boats" in the search for economic prosperity.

The lunchtime announcement ceremony, on the south portico of the Statehouse, was austere by usual political standards. There were no introductions, no elected officials, no music and no banners, campaign signs or decorations, save for a display of U.S. and Virginia flags.

Instead, the candidate stood beneath the steamy, late-summer sun, alone on a hastily built wooden platform, his three grown children and a dozen aides and supporters arrayed behind him on the Capitol steps.

"In seeking the presidency, I recognize that I am the longest of long shots. I may not win. I may get but a few votes," Mr. Wilder said.

But, he went on, "I would not deserve to be who I am if I failed to step forward at this critical juncture in our nation's history. For if we fail to heal this nation in 1992, it may not be healed in my lifetime. If we fail to put this country on a sound fiscal posture in 1992, then order may not be restored in my lifetime."

Other Democratic contenders for 1992 include former Sen. PauE. Tsongas of Massachusetts, who declared his candidacy in April, and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who plans to enter the race formally tomorrow. Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. are also expected to announce soon, and Representative Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma revealed this week that he was "seriously considering" becoming a candidate.

Two of the country's most prominent Democrats, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, have not flatly ruled out running in 1992, but neither has taken any clear steps toward entering the race.

BACKGROUND CHECK

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LAWRENCE DOUGLAS WILDER Born

Jan. 17, 1931, Richmond, Va., to Robert and Beulah Wilder.

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