Presidential candidates compete for black support On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

December 10, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington GOV. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia dropped into Little Rock the other day and came away with the endorsements of some black state legislators on the home ground of one of his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

Given place as the first black ever elected to a state governorship, that siccess came as no particular surprise. It is clear that race alone will give him a substantial base in some of the Democratic primaries. But the operative question is whether he can hold a significant share of that support if it becomes apparent he is not a credible competitor for the nomination.

Wilder has been putting increasing stress on his black support. But he faces some difficult hurdles if he has any notion he can compete for blacks on the level Jesse Jackson achieved in both 1984 and 1988.

For one thing, the primary and caucus schedule is a difficult one for Wilder. The first 11 states now scheduled to begin delegate selection includes only one, Maryland, in which blacks make up as much as 25 percent of the population. There is also a strong chance that Georgia also will move its primary up from March 10 to March 3, which would give Wilder a second opportunity. Otherwise, he can only point to the southern Super Tuesday primaries March 10, by which time his credibility as a serious player may be in question.

On the face of it, the primary schedule is not much more difficult for Wilder than it was for Jackson in the last two campaigns. One difference was that as the first black candidate, and one with a compelling media personality, Jackson could attract enough attention so that the few votes he drew in Iowa and New Hampshire were essentially forgiven.

A more important difference, however, may be that, except for Walter F. Mondale in 1984, none of the white candidates either year made any genuine attempt to compete with Jackson for the support of black political leaders and voters. Mondale alone had the civil rights-political credentials that allowed him to win roughly half the black vote in both Georgia and Alabama, shares that saved his skin in both primaries. The other whites took a pass because they feared running afoul of Jackson and facing a problem with him later.

This time, however, there is every reason to believe that Clinton, Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York will feel no compunctions about competing directly with a black candidate espousing a message as intrinsically conservative as that Wilder brings to the campaign. None of them has the history with blacks of a Mondale, but each of them can expect support from some black politicians who disagree with Wilder on the issues.

The Jackson factor also may come into play. Politician Wilder and civil rights leader Jackson have never been on the same wave length in terms of their approach to seeking political power, and the personal relationship between the two men is uneasy at best. Jackson already has made a point of advising erstwhile supporters to keep their options open, and no one imagines he intends to support Wilder.

Wilder also has earned a reputation among Democratic activists for a kind of political contentiousness that means his rivals are less likely to be shy about challenging him than they were with Jackson. The fact that he went into Arkansas to bag some black supporters was totally consistent with the way he plays politics by juxtaposing himself against other candidates. He did it earlier with Cuomo, and he has done it more than once with Clinton as the Arkansas governor has gained more prominence in the campaign.

The result is likely to be a less forgiving attitude toward Wilder than Jackson enjoyed. In both 1984 and 1988 no one knowledgeable about Democratic politics believed Jackson would win a place on the national ticket. But the threat of Jackson's turning on them persuaded these white candidates to keep that little secret to themselves.

Doug Wilder, however, has made himself more vulnerable both by playing more confrontational politics and by trumpeting a "new mainstream" formulation that can be translated as unabashed conservatism. The Virginia governor has made it clear he intends to play the racial card in building a coalition in the primaries, but he should recognize he won't have a free ride.

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