Former Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said Wednesday that his party's gubernatorial nominee, R. Creigh Deeds, is at risk of becoming the "me, too" candidate, and complimented GOP opponent Robert F. McDonnell on his efforts to reach out to Virginians who don't traditionally vote Republican.
"I would have to say Bob seems to be very aggressive in going out and strongly seeking the support of everybody," Mr. Wilder said.
The comments were made during an interview with The Washington Times in which Mr. Wilder, 78, the nation's first elected black governor, said Mr. McDonnell has been able during the campaign for November's election to set the agenda on several issues.
Mr. Wilder still has not endorsed a candidate in the race.
Mr. Deeds, a state senator, was put on the defensive most recently when Mr. McDonnell spoke out in support of a bill to provide restitution to a black man who spent 22 years in prison for a crime he was later cleared of by DNA tests.
The bill, to be introduced during a special session next month, would provide nearly a half-million dollars in financial compensation for Arthur Whitfield, who was wrongly convicted of two rapes.
Gov. Tim Kaine, who called the special session to address a procedural issue raised by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, originally said he did not want legislators to take up other bills during the one-day session. But his office said Wednesday he would support addressing the wrongful conviction case.
Mr. Deeds said he would also support the introduction of the bill, but he said it only after Mr. McDonnell had taken up the issue.
"Who called for that first?" asked Mr. Wilder, who noted that Mr. McDonnell has been ahead of his opponent in laying out a transportation policy, in pressing for the special session and in seeking help for Mr. Whitfield. "And Mr. Deeds said, 'Me, too.' "
"Virginians look for leadership. Who is going to be there on what issue," Mr. Wilder added. "Unfortunately, when that happens and the other candidate says, 'I support that too,' " you don't look like a strong leader. If you thought that, why didn't you say it?"
An endorsement from the influential Mr. Wilder carries high value in any political contest in Virginia, especially when it comes to influencing black voters. Mr. Deeds, who has yet to solidify support within the black community, has scheduled a meeting next week with Mr. Wilder.
Deeds spokesman Jared Leopold said: "Creigh is looking forward to sitting down with Gov. Wilder. Creigh admires Gov. Wilder's groundbreaking achievements throughout his career, but he recognizes that the governor is an independent leader and will make up his own mind."
A belated endorsement is not unheard of from Mr. Wilder, in fact it is usually the norm. He said he likes his endorsement to mean something.
But when it comes to Mr. Deeds' campaign, he may be playing a dangerous game. The Democrat has already lost the support of at least one influential black Virginian. Sheila Johnson, the billionaire co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, announced her support for Mr. McDonnell last week. Mrs. Johnson was one of the largest individual contributors to Mr. Kaine's 2005 Democratic gubernatorial campaign
In the past, Mr. Wilder has endorsed Democrats but never publicly endorsed a Republican; he has turned his back on candidates he previously had favored.
His lack of an endorsement can be telling. In 2005, he chose not to endorse either Mr. Deeds or Mr. McDonnell in their race for attorney general, but he specifically said he was not supporting Mr. Deeds because the candidate had refused to vote in favor of his one-gun-a-month bill.
He said both men are very pleasant fellows, but he wants them to show their positions before awarding an endorsement, noting that he's seen positions from Mr. McDonnell on subjects like privatization.
"These are things you can identify and see and they are leadership positions," he said.
Out of the governor's mansion for 15 years and no longer mayor of Richmond, Mr. Wilder's recommendations to Mr. Deeds have a similar ring to what he told Jim Webb when he was running for the U.S. Senate.
"The question is, what reasons will Jim Webb give people to vote for him," Mr. Wilder told The Washington Times in 2006 before he endorsed Mr. Webb. "There are so many people in the middle that want to have a reason to lean this way or that."
He endorsed Mr. Kaine a week before his election.
"It helped a lot," Mr. Kaine told The Times in 2006 "At that point, we felt like we had momentum and it was a confirmation of momentum, which created more momentum."
The black vote in Virginia has long been elusive for Republicans. George Allen captured 20 percent of the black vote in 1993 when he was elected to succeed Mr. Wilder as governor, and 17 percent when he unseated Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb in 2000.
In the 2006 Senate race, black voters abandoned the Republican Party in droves after Mr. Allen called a Webb volunteer "macaca" at a campaign event in 2006. The term, which Mr. Allen said he made up, is considered a racial slur in some cultures.
Twenty percent of Virginia's population is black, according to the U.S. census. Additionally, the Obama campaign registered thousands of new black voters on his way to winning the state in 2008.
Mr. Deeds trailed his two Democratic rivals among black voters in polls conducted before the primary, and a recent Public Policy Polling survey showed 68 percent of black voters said they would vote for Mr. Deeds. While that number is high, it is far short of some estimates of the number of black voters a Democrat might need to carry the state.
Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, estimated that Mr. McDonnell could win the election with as little as 15 percent of the black vote.
The poll, which showed Mr. McDonnell with 16 percent support among blacks, was conducted before Mrs. Johnson threw her support to the Republican.
Whether it will translate into votes remains to be seen.
"It might influence some, but we're talking about a small percentage, a fraction of the African-American vote," he said, adding "that fraction could be critical."