In the wake of Wilder's choice: a fight for the black vote On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

January 13, 1992|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

Washington -- Douglas Wilder's political legacy is not one he intended to bestow on his rivals. But his withdrawal has given the five remaining candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination an opportunity they never expected to have -- a chance to compete early in the game for the support of black voters and political leaders.

On the face of it, there was never any reason for white candidates to be reluctant to seek black support, and all of them have done so to one degree or another. But so long as Doug Wilder, the first black ever elected to a state governorship, was in the field, there was the danger of appearing to be intruding on his turf.

This is a reality Democratic presidential candidates came to accept in the campaigns of both 1984 and 1988 when Jesse Jackson was a competitor. Except for Walter Mondale in 1984, none of them had a history of involvement with black political leaders that made them comfortable in competing for black support. And Jackson made it difficult, even for Mondale, by emphasizing the historical significance of his role as the first "serious" black candidate for the presidency.

The result was that the eventual nominees, Mondale in 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, weren't able to build full-scale operations in the black community until after the national conventions had affirmed their primacy and Jackson had given the signal. In Mondale's case, Jackson didn't deliver his endorsement until Labor Day weekend and then only grudgingly.

Jackson's role probably didn't have much impact in 1984; Mondale was going to be buried by President Ronald Reagan with or without enthusiastic black support. But in 1988 Dukakis suffered in several key states--Illinois and Pennsylvania, for example -- by a decline in black turnout that might have been avoided if he had been able to establish a genuine rapport with black leaders early in the year.

The conventional wisdom in the immediate aftermath of Wilder's withdrawal is that the prime beneficiary will be Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who has led a state with a substantial black population and enjoyed a positive working relationship with blacks. At least up to a point, Clinton can be compared to candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976, whose strong support among black leaders was a key to his success.

By contrast, both Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa represent states with small black populations and thus have less history of making common political cause with blacks. That doesn't mean Kerrey and Harkin cannot make important inroads into the black vote -- Harkin's labor support offers him an avenue, for example -- but it does mean they don't have the kind of running start Clinton enjoys.

Given the schedule the Democrats have adopted for delegate-selection primaries and caucuses, the black vote clearly has the potential to be decisive. Although the black population is minuscule in New Hampshire, Maine and South Dakota, the sites of the first tests, blacks make up a significant bloc in the March 3 primaries in Georgia and Maryland, the March 7 primary in South Carolina and seven of 11 scheduled Super Tuesday March 10. And black voters clearly can make a difference in the first big industrial state primaries in Illinois and Michigan March 17, by which time the Democrats may be ready to settle on a nominee.

Before he withdrew, Wilder was attracting the lion's share of black support in public opinion polls, which came as no surprise given his name recognition. But some blacks leaders had been cautious about making commitments because of their suspicion Wilder's policies might be too conservative to be acceptable. And Wilder was being hurt in some quarters by the accurate perception that Jackson was no admirer.

Now that Wilder has stepped aside, Jackson may be an even more influential force in the black community in the weeks ahead. But there are other prominent black leaders -- mayors such as Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, Coleman Young of Detroit and David Dinkins of New York, congressmen such as John Lewis of Georgia and Charles Rangel of New York -- who can be important in giving a stamp of approval to white candidates seeking black support.

The important thing, however, is that the field is now open to these white candidates as it has not been since Jesse Jackson came on the national political stage eight years ago. Inadvertently or not, Doug Wilder has done them all a big favor.

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