WASHINGTON -- Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder had no sooner quit the Democratic presidential race than other candidates began courting his supporters in Maryland, seeking an edge in what appears to be a wide-open race.
Several candidates claim they will benefit from Mr. Wilder's abrupt exit Wednesday. Some political experts, like pollster J. Bradford Coker, say Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton now is the clear front-runner in Maryland, whose primary is March 3.
But a number of black leaders caution that black voters aren't likely to vote as a bloc and have yet to familiarize themselves with the candidates.
"People of African ancestry in this country are not monolithic in any regard and are going to look at these individual candidates from their individual perspective and make their own choices," Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th, said yesterday.
The candidates will have "to work for and earn" black voter support, said Mr. Mfume, who added that he intends to remain neutral until the national convention this summer.
Mr. Clinton, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin appear to be having the greatest success winning over supporters of Mr. Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor and the leader in a poll of Maryland Democrats conducted last month by Mr. Coker's firm, Mason-Dixon Opinion Research Inc. But supporters of former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas and former California Gov. Edmond G. "Jerry" Brown also were making calls.
The competition was particularly frantic yesterday because last night was the deadline for prospective convention delegates to be listed on the March 3 ballot. Twenty minutes after Mr. Wilder bowed out, a Kerrey campaign worker called Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, who had been leaning toward supporting the Virginian.
"It certainly changes the dynamics of the race, no question about that," said Mr. Snowden, who warned against any candidate assuming black support. "And frankly I'm looking for the candidate that will inherit the mantle that I think Doug Wilder got pretty much from Jesse Jackson."
Mr. Snowden, like many black officials, was a delegate for Mr. Jackson in 1984 and 1988. Now, for the first time since 1980, black Democrats must choose among an all-white field.
"With Jesse not running, we're just in a terrible void," said state Sen. Gloria Lawlah, D-Prince George's. "People are at loose ends."
Ms. Lawlah, a state organizer for Mr. Wilder, said she will campaign for Mr. Clinton. "I think we need a Southerner. Wilder was a Southerner. All of us would agree that one of the things that has happened to the Democratic Party is we have had an erosion of credibility in the Southern states."
Baltimore City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, D-4th, switched immediately from the Wilder camp to Mr. Harkin's. "He's touching on issues that I believe are going to be very important for the lives of citizens in general and specifically the African-American community," she said.
The Kerrey campaign, meanwhile, boasted the support of black politicians like Del. Frank D. Boston Jr., D-Baltimore, leader of the city's delegation in Annapolis.
"Kerrey's to the left of Clinton, and I think it makes him a more attractive candidate to black voters," said Martin O'Malley, a Baltimore City Council member who is helping direct the senator's campaign.
But Mr. Coker said "all signs point to Clinton right now, although I suspect Harkin will use his labor ties to try to build" support. Mr. Coker noted that Mr. Clinton ran second in the December poll and, unlike Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Harkin, has run for office in a state with many black voters.
"I think Clinton is emerging as the national front-runner," Mr. Coker said. "