When Douglas Wilder announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination last September, he conceded that he was “the longest of long shots.” Last week, the 60-year-old Virginia governor’s quixotic quest for the White House came to a sudden halt. At the end of his annual state of the commonwealth address, Wilder told legislators in Richmond that the Bush administration is responsible for the state's economic problems, which he said take precedence over his political ambitions. “President Bush’s policies have weakened our national economy and made him vulnerable,” said Wilder. “Yet at the same time, the weak national economy has made it all the more difficult for me to make my case while tending to ever more pressing obligations at home.” Then, the descendant of slaves, who made history in 1989 as the first black ever elected as a state governor, officially withdrew from the race.
As governor, Wilder has preached and
practised fiscal conservatism, balancing the state’s budget through spending cuts without new taxes. But the recession finally took root in Virginia. And last week, Wilder had to ask state legislators to approve both higher taxes and more spending cuts to cover a projected $640million budget shortfall over the next two years. Still, analysts cited other factors in Wilder’s decision to quit the presidential race. He had raised less than $1 million in campaign contributions—half of which came from matching government funds. His attempt to galvanize the black vote did not compare with the strong showing of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson in the 1984 and 1988 presidential races. And recent polls in New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first presidential primary on Feb. 18, placed Wilder near the bottom of the six-man field.
Of the five major Democrats still in the race, analysts say that moderate Arkansas Gov. William Clinton, 45, who is widely regarded as
the front-runner, could benefit most from Wilder’s departure. About one of every five Democrats is black, and many of them live in southern states—Clinton’s home base. Black voters are expected to play an important role in both the March 3 primary in Maryland, where a recent poll showed Wilder leading the field, and in seven southern and border states—where Clinton was an early favorite—that hold their primaries on Super Tuesday, March 10.
In Oklahoma last week, Clinton spoke highly of his former rival, adding: “We haven’t heard the last of Doug Wilder.” In fact, some political insiders predict that the governor, who is barred by state law from seeking a second term, could soon resurface in a new role: the running mate of the eventual Democratic presidential nominee.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.