The Democrats without Wilder

January 10, 1992

Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's decision to quit the Democratic presidential race was forced upon him. He had been unable to mount a credible campaign -- as polls, coverage and fund raising all showed. Had he stayed in, he probably would have lost badly and might even have been humiliated. His problem was that he came on too fast, too soon, beginning a presidential quest even before he had warmed the governor's chair in Richmond.

Who among the remaining Democratic candidates will benefit?

The consensus answer to that is Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. He had already begun to emerge as the front runner by all the normal indicators. Earlier this week two large unions indicated they favored his candidacy. Sen. Tom Harkin lives or dies on labor support. If Governor Clinton draws more union leaders his way, Senator Harkin will be hard-pressed to make a good showing anywhere outside of his home state of Iowa.

Now with Governor Wilder out of the presidential primary campaign, the black vote, which is even more influential in many state Democratic parties than is the labor vote, is thought to be more inclined to support Governor Clinton than any of the other realistic candidates -- Senator Harkin, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. None of those three, because of the demographics of their states, has the record that Governor Clinton has in forming bi-racial coalitions.

This assumes Jesse Jackson does not re-enter the race. He says he won't. It is too late for him to do so in Maryland and several other early primary states, anyway. We hope he doesn't return to the campaign trail. In his past campaigns in 1988 and 1984, white candidates tended to ignore black voters, writing them off as unwinnable. Black voters thus played less of a role in the pre-nomination process than they should play.

With Governor Wilder out, the survivors of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary will be appealing for black votes in Maryland, Georgia, South Carolina and other early-primary states which blacks constitute a significant percentage of the overall vote (unlike New Hampshire). Black Democrats have an opportunity to do again what they haven't done since Jimmy Carter ran in 1976 -- tip the nomination to a candidate of their choice.

Predicting primaries is tough for pollsters and journalists. Front runners often stumble. But with his money and organization, with his favorite son status in the South (he is the only Southerner in the race), if Governor Clinton can also draw substantial support from blacks and labor, he not only should win easily, he could even wrap it up early.

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