Don't count on Wilder to stay out of politics

ON POLITICS

January 14, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The surprise announcement of Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder that he will not challenge Sen. Chuck Robb for this year's Democratic senatorial nomination is for political junkies like telling a 5-year-old that the circus isn't coming to town.

The prospective political brawl between these two old blood enemies, with its potential for Democratic self-immolation and the election of the leading Republican candidate, Iran-contra celebrity Oliver North, was more enticing than a cage full of snarling lions and tigers.

Wilder's efforts to have the state's Democrats select the nominee through a primary rather than by party activists in convention was widely seen as willingness if not eagerness on the lame-duck governor's part to have the explosive history of the Wilder-Robb feud replayed in a vitriolic campaign across the state.

Wilder says he won't endorse anybody in the June Democratic primary, in which a little-known Richmond lawyer, Sylvia Clute, will challenge Robb, with the possibility that other contenders may now enter the race. But it would not be out of character for Wilder to be a free-lance critic of Robb between now and the primary.

Wilder's decision not to run obviously takes considerable heat off Robb, but it is no guarantee that he is home free, considering the baggage he carries into the re-election campaign, with or without Wilder snapping at his heels. The reports of unsavory associations by Robb with drug users and women when he was Virginia's governor, and the juicy investigation into a tape recording of Wilder saying in a telephone conversation that the allegations would be the end of Robb's political career, are fodder for Clute or some other challenger as well.

Robb, on learning of Wilder's decision, professed to a "certain disappointment when you prepare for a spirited contest." Sure. In any event, if he gets by the primary, he will likely get all the spirited opposition he wants from North, assuming that Ollie navigates past the challenge in his party from former Ronald Reagan budget director Jim Miller at the GOP state convention in June.

Wilder says he concluded that running for the Senate after having been the nation's first elected black governor "wouldn't be moving up" and would not be "a sequel that I would consider elevating." It is a remark that certainly would be thrown up to him should he decide at a later time to run for just about anything short of the presidency.

He tried that in the fall of 1991 but folded the campaign less than four months later when polls indicated he was getting little for his effort beyond growing resentment back in Virginia that he was focusing elsewhere when his single four-year term still had more than two years to run. That resentment apparently clung, along with general disgust among many voters toward his mean-spirited feud with Robb.

At the time of his presidential candidacy, Wilder was also at loggerheads with Jesse Jackson on the direction the Democratic Party should take and, by inference, which of them should exert the stronger voice on the role of blacks in politics in the country. In the end, both men saw their influence diminished as nominee Bill Clinton charted his own course with a considerable black constituency behind him.

There was speculation in the summer of 1992 that Wilder was interested in being Ross Perot's running mate, but nothing came of it when Perot first exited from the race and later stuck with his standby choice, retired Adm. James Stockdale, when he returned.

Wilder at 62 certainly cannot be counted out of politics, or perhaps out of a post in the Clinton administration, although he says he hasn't had any discussions of the possibility. But he is somewhat of a loose cannon, and as such may be less attractive to the administration than a man with his background might otherwise be. He pointedly said in his announcement that his decision was not the result "of any quid pro quo or any kind of deal or arrangement" that presumably would clear the path for Robb. But it is hard to picture Doug Wilder sitting on the political sidelines for long -- or, for that matter, keeping his feelings about Robb to himself in an election year.

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