Wilder must establish his credibility -- and quickly On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

September 16, 1991|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON--Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's formal declaration that he is a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination does nothing to solve his essential problem--demonstrating that dTC he can be a credible possibility. But it does change the dynamics of the contest within the party.

There never has been any question about Wilder's special celebrity since he became the first black ever elected to a state governorship two years ago. But there always has been reason to doubt he could be a successful player on the national political stage, and Wilder has added to that doubt by his performance over the last few months.

At the most elemental level, Wilder is politically burdened by his race. His success in winning the governorship of Virginia was celebrated, deservedly, as a historic breakthrough. But it is equally true that by all reckonings he should have won that 1989 campaign against a weak opponent who heaped mistake upon mistake by 20 percentage points. The unmistakable message in his razor-thin margin was that there is still some significant minority of white voters who won't accept a black candidate.

Wilder has added to doubts about his viability by espousing what calls a "new mainstream" of Democratic thinking that amounts to a special emphasis on fiscal conservatism such as that he practiced in dealing with his state's budget crisis. There are many Democrats who agree with such policies, but the delegate-selection process in the party is far more heavily influenced by traditional liberal activists.

The most serious problem for Wilder, however, has little to do with issues and everything to do with his personal style. In his long-running political feud with Sen. Charles Robb, his political colleague in Virginia, and in his contretemps with Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, Wilder projected an image of a prickly personality with a chip on his shoulder. It is not the kind of perception that other politicians find reassuring.

The result is that there is far less talk within the party these days about Wilder as a potential vice presidential candidate. The first requirement for any running mate is the kind of political reliability that means that candidate cannot hurt the ticket.

None of this suggests, however, that Wilder's candidacy won't be important in the Democratic equation in the next few months. At the most obvious level, it removes the possibility that the white candidates could compete for black support in the primaries without having to tiptoe around a black competitor as all except Walter F. Mondale did in the case of Jesse Jackson in each of the last two campaigns. This doesn't mean the white contenders won't seek black support but they will operate under constraints that might not apply if Wilder were not in the picture.

Wilder is in a somewhat different position from that Jackson held. Perhaps because he came up through the political process rather than the civil rights movement, he has not built the emotional following of Jackson. And because of his relative conservatism, Wilder is not likely to get the kind of overwhelming support from other black political leaders that Jackson evoked in 1988. On the contrary, his candidacy could be a factor in drawing some other, more traditionally liberal black into the Democratic field, even if Jesse Jackson sticks to his apparent resolve not to run this time around.

It would be premature, of course, to write Wilder out of the race at the outset. It is always possible he will strike a nerve with caucus and primary voters that will make him a serious contender. But the first critical test in New Hampshire is a difficult one for him. There are few blacks in the state and, as Jackson discovered in 1984, not many whites willing to use their votes to make a gesture. By the time the campaign reaches constituencies with a significant share of black voters, Wilder already may be buried in the second tier.

As he pointed out when he declared his candidacy, Wilder is used to the press and conventional political wisdom minimizing his chances. It happened when he ran for lieutenant governor in 1985 and then again when he ran for governor four years later.

There is, nonetheless, a world of difference between running against rinky-dink opposition in a state race and campaigning for the presidency. And Doug Wilder needs to demonstrate as quickly as possible that he is ready to move up.

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