Wilder-Robb Senate race to be climax of their feud ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder's announcement that he will challenge fellow Democrat Chuck Robb for Robb's Senate seat next year, in what promises to be the climax of a classic political feud, is about as surprising as the sun rising in the East and setting in the West.

All through Wilder's political career, he has been a man looking down the road for the next chance, even when it has seemed quixotic, as in his hopeless, short-lived campaign for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Wilder had been governor less than 14 months when he established an exploratory committee for that race, only to bow out abruptly in January 1992, before the first primary. He was going nowhere, and polls in Virginia were indicating that voters wanted him to stay in Richmond and tend to business.

One of the obvious reasons that Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor, was casting about for a new job was Virginia's limit of one four-year term for its chief executive. With his presidential lark over, the next shot was for the Senate in 1994, and the fact that the seat is held by Robb made the prospect doubly enticing, in light of the bitter running feud between the two men going back almost since Robb entered Virginia politics in 1977.

Robb's chief claim to fame then was the fact he was married to former President Lyndon Johnson's daughter Lynda, whom he had met when he was a Marine guard at the White House. With no previous political experience, Robb ran for and won the lieutenant governorship, which is said to have rankled Wilder, a veteran state senator at the time. Four years later Robb won the governorship with a sizable black vote for which Wilder, friends said, thought he did not receive adequate credit.

The feud grew the next year when Robb hand-picked a conservative to be the party senatorial nominee. Wilder objected and threatened to run himself, but Robb backed down and anointed a candidate more to Wilder's liking, but he lost to Republican Paul Trible. In 1985, when Wilder ran for lieutenant governor and won, the Wilder camp charged that Robb first tried to talk Wilder out of running and then didn't adequately support him when he did.

Wilder also was publicly and privately critical of the Democratic Leadership Council of which Robb was a founder, leading Robb to write him letters over the next year questioning his motives. When Robb released some of the letters in late 1986, the feud grew even hotter. Robb suggested, among other things, that Wilder was driven by a desire to wrest the leadership of black America from Jesse Jackson.

By 1991, with Wilder now governor and Robb in the Senate, it was all-out political warfare between the two men. After reports surfaced of Robb's partying with suspected drug users and having an affair with a former Miss Virginia/USA, an illegal tape recording of a Wilder cellular phone conversation critical of Robb made its way into the hands of Robb's staff and transcripts were leaked to the press. The taper of the conversation eventually was convicted and some Robb aides were indicted, but Robb himself was cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury.

Robb allies are acknowledged to control the state party and could renominate him by convention, but pressures are already mounting for a primary. Paul Goldman, a former state party chairman who was also Wilder's campaign manager, says "if the party shuts down the process" and awards renomination to Robb without a primary, voters "are entitled to take that into consideration."

The obvious option for Wilder is to run as an independent, which he could also do if a primary was held and he lost.

But looming over the whole contentious situation is the prospect that the Republicans may nominate Iran-contra figure Oliver North, described by one Virginia Democratic leader as formidable "because he's a fund-raising machine."

Also, some Democrats fear the Wilder-Robb feud will so split the state party that the chances of state Attorney General Mary Sue Terry to succeed Wilder in this fall's gubernatorial election will be seriously undercut.

But the fat is already in the fire, and the outlook is for more heat, smoke and flames between Wilder and Robb between now and the 1994 senatorial election.

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