The first black candidate elected governor says he's confident that the next president of the United States will be a white woman or a black man.
L. Douglas Wilder, the mayor of Richmond and Virginia's former governor, says he believes the two front-runners for the 2008 Democratic nomination — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois — will sustain their momentum.
"The question, 'Is the country ready for a black president or a woman president?' won't be asked after this next election because one of those two will be elected," said Mr. Wilder, a Democrat who was elected governor of Virginia two decades ago.
"People are always ahead of their leaders," he said. "The next president of the United States will be either one of those two persons."
Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama lead the other six candidates in the polls and in fundraising. Though the first caucus and the first primary are six months away, Mrs. Clinton is usually regarded as the front-runner because she leads in several Democratic public-opinion polls, both nationally and in several primary states. and her campaign has talked of "inevitability."
"Hillary's electoral strength has grown in the last quarter and she is better positioned today than ever before to become the next president of the United States," Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn wrote not long ago in what has been dubbed the "inevitability" memo.
"Hillary's message: that her strength and experience will bring real change that America needs, is resonating strongly with voters," Mr. Penn said.
David Plouffe, the manager of the Obama campaign, argues that the senator has time to gain in polls, in part because of the $31 million the campaign raised in the second quarter of the year.
"It has become more than a campaign," Mr. Plouffe wrote a recent memo of his own. "It's a movement. We have strong reason to believe that our already impressive support in the early states will solidify and slowly build later in the year. ... It is clear we have the most room to grow in the race."
Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have been capturing early endorsements from Democratic officeholders. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia endorsed Mr. Obama early in the cycle. A nod from Mr. Wilder would help one of the Democrats in Virginia's Feb. 12 primary and might influence black voters elsewhere.
Mr. Wilder said he will ultimately pick a candidate and said he has spoken to Mr. Obama several times. "I think it's good that he's running. It is good for people to see a clearly qualified candidate who is from a minority stripe."
Mr. Obama has a "capacity for uniting people," Mr. Wilder said, but added that it was not smart to "underestimate Hillary." The two front-runners "dim the luster" of the six other candidates in the race in general, he said, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina in particular.
Mr. Wilder has usually withheld his endorsements in other races until the moment he thinks they really count. His last-minute embrace of Mr. Kaine in 2005 is thought to have been decisive. So, too, his late endorsement of James H. Webb Jr., who unseated Sen. George Allen last fall.
Mr. Wilder, 76, considered running for president himself in 1992 when he was a sitting governor. Mrs. Clinton's husband, Bill Clinton, was elected president in that year. Once, when he was asked whether another former Virginia governor should run for president, Mr. Wilder replied with his trademark grin that he received his loudest cheers when he announced to the legislature that he had decided not to run.