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January 12, 1992|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- When Doug Wilder announced that he was withdrawing from the presidential race, he did not say it with a Virginia accent, because there is no single such thing.

Sensitive ears recognize the southwestern mountain accent, which is vastly different from the Southside way of speech, and the Tidewater sound, which has no resemblance at all to the mongrel medley of the metropolitan northern counties. Then there is the Richmond accent, influenced by Tidewater, as soft but not quite as rounded. Within it, there are neighborhood variations.

Governor Wilder talks with the tones of Richmond's Church Hill, just east of Shockoe Creek, near St. John's Church, where the fiery Patrick Henry made his give-me-liberty speech.

Unlike Henry's, Mr. Wilder's speeches will not ring in history two centuries later.

He has come so far not for his oratory, but for what he is. Three hundred seventy-two years after the first blacks were brought ashore in Virginia, he became the first black to be elected governor -- not just in Virginia or in the South, but anywhere in America.

Having risen so high, he seemed ready to believe the American dream -- that anyone, even a grandson of slaves from the capital of the Confederacy, could aspire to the highest office in the land. Besides, Virginia law holds governors to one term at a time. So he announced for president.

There were those, myself included, who thought he actually was running for vice president, that he did not expect to win the nomination but might position himself as a logical number two choice. He could do that the way he won in Virginia, by courting the great middle range of voters rather than the fringes.

His accent fit his message, soothing rather than alarming, moderate instead of radical. His sermons on fiscal restraint echoed those of Harry Byrd the Elder, marshal of Virginia's massive resistance to desegregation, who would have had apoplexy at the thought of Doug Wilder in the governor's office he himself once filled.

That message traveled well, within Virginia. I first heard it when Mr. Wilder was running for governor, at a Brunswick stew in Southside, outside a barn in the shadow of White Oak Mountain. There was nothing remarkable about it, and that was why it was effective. Those in approving attendance ranged from sunburned tobacco farmers to textile union organizers, erstwhile

TC Byrd Democrats to campaigners for Jesse Jackson, people who would hardly have spoken to each other a few years earlier.

But then Mr. Wilder got elected, and whatever he did afterward became an anticlimax. He had a silly feud with Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb, which diminished both of them. And he headed north to run for president.

In New Hampshire, the Church Hill accent was not as comforting as it was to people in Spotsylvania and Pittsylvania, Accomac and Amelia. Neither was the message. Primary-season activists and contributors to the national Democratic Party want to hear something far different from the line that won a hairbreadth general election majority in the conservative Old Dominion.

The fact that Mr. Wilder was not Jesse Jackson was an asset, because he was not a threat to party harmony. But it was a liability, because he tried to (a) enlist black Democrats without scaring whites, and (b) blame Mr. Jackson for the underwhelming response.

Meanwhile, back in Richmond, the government was in deep financial trouble like that of most other states. The need to tend to it gave Mr. Wilder an excuse to abandon his sagging campaign, and even the Richmond Times-Dispatch, his editorial nemesis, credited him with making a "graceful exit."

Nationally, political talk turned immediately away from him, to what effect his departure would have on the Democratic race. One version was that Bill Clinton would profit because he already has appealed successfully for black votes in the South. Another was that most black Democrats would turn to Tom Harkin, who preaches old-time party liberalism. Another was that with Mr. Wilder out, many black voters would not bother to vote this year.

New Hampshire may have forgotten Doug Wilder already, but on Church Hill and in the history books of Virginia, he will be remembered as long as Patrick Henry himself.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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