- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

The November election will be a referendum in part on whether the Obama administration has done what it promised to do less than a year ago, said former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat.

During an interview with The Washington Times, the nation’s first elected black governor said that if Democrats lose either or both of the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia - the only two in the nation this year - it would send a “telling message” to the Democratic Party and the president.

“It is an opportunity for people to compare where they were last year at this time in terms of the Bush administration and what was being said by Democrats, in this particular instance, the president, in terms [of] what he saw and how he would change and what he would change. This is the first real opportunity for people to have some degree of measurement as to whether that has been successful or not or is being successful or not,” he said.

Seeing this as a pivotal moment in a very important election, Mr. Wilder said he would break with tradition and announce his endorsement for governor late this week at a time when polling numbers indicate that the race has tightened.

Mr. Wilder refused to specify who he intends to endorse, but his tone toward both candidates has changed - less critical of Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and less effusive toward Republican Robert F. McDonnell than he was just a few weeks ago.

“The most important thing is what is best for the people of Virginia at this time and who is best prepared in these really tough times to govern. That is all that is governing me in terms of my decision,” Mr. Wilder said.

He was sharply critical of Mr. McDonnell’s graduate school thesis, in which the candidate was critical of working women, gays and abortion; however, Mr. Wilder said judging the candidate on that alone would ignore the issues most important to Virginia.

“I thought it was stupid. I thought it was almost out of touch with reality. I thought it had passages in it that had such unrealistic proportions that you would say: ‘What is going on?’ ”

But if you dismiss Mr. McDonnell, Mr. Wilder said you are left with Mr. Deeds and the issues that he has as a candidate. Additionally, he said, while not attempting to explain or excuse Mr. McDonnell’s thesis, the issues brought to light by it aren’t the most relevant at a time when the state is grappling with huge economic problems.

Plans to fix the state coupled with leadership skills and vision are what’s most important, Mr. Wilder said.

When asked to rate the candidates’ plans to fix transportation and education, Mr. Wilder said both men need to put forward plans that are realistic.

“I’ve been there; you can’t resist the temptation to over-commit. You want to say more than what your opponent is saying. You want to give people a reason. Like for instance, when I was running, I really thought we had money and I told a whole bunch of lies and not intentionally, then I found out … we’re broke.”

Mr. Wilder said both candidates should be judged on their records.

And it is because of Mr. Deeds’ record that Mr. Wilder declined to endorse him in the past.

When the Democratic state senator was running against then-Delegate McDonnell for attorney general in 2005, Mr. Wilder refused to endorse either candidate, specifically saying that he was not supporting Mr. Deeds because the candidate had refused to vote in favor of his one-gun-a-month bill.

That vote still weighs on Mr. Wilder.

“It is an issue, of course, which will be given the appropriate attention as will be given to all the others,” he said.

Both candidates have said they would repeal that law if given the opportunity, but Mr. Wilder sees a difference in their stances. He said that while Mr. McDonnell has said that he would sign a measure repealing the law if it crosses his desk, Mr. Deeds said he would actively pursue it.

The importance of an endorsement from Mr. Wilder can’t be discounted, especially as the Republican’s wide lead in the polls has evaporated and the Democrat has gained new momentum after the publication of Mr. McDonnell’s thesis.

Late endorsements from Mr. Wilder are the norm, said Mark J. Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University.

Mr. Wilder endorsed Tim Kaine when he was running for governor a week before his election and waited similarly to endorse Jim Webb when he was running for Senate.

“This is a quadrennial ritual, really, with Doug Wilder,” Mr. Rozell said. “He holds back before making an endorsement, making the Democratic candidate sweat it out until the end.”

Mr. Wilder has never publicly endorsed a Republican, but he has withheld his endorsement. The process certainly makes the prize notable.

“If he were a reliable endorser of every Democratic nominee, hardly anyone would pay attention when he made his endorsement that is just expected, hardly newsworthy,” Mr. Rozell said.

If Mr. Wilder were to endorse Mr. Deeds, it would provide a powerful boost. However, if he were to endorse Mr. McDonnell, it could effectively kill Mr. Deeds’ momentum. Also problematic for Mr. Deeds is the very real possibility that Mr. Wilder will once again decline to endorse either candidate as he did when the two were running for attorney general.

“Merely to have [the] impression solidified that there is a leading Democrat hesitant or unwilling to endorse the Democratic nominee, that is enough to raise some doubts in the mind of some voters,” Mr. Rozell said.

Additionally, an endorsement from the influential Mr. Wilder carries high value when it comes to influencing the black vote, long elusive to 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. 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. 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 81 percent of black voters said they would vote for Mr. Deeds.

Mr. McDonnell has been wooing Mr. Wilder for years. The two worked together on anti-gang initiatives when Mr. Wilder was mayor of Richmond and Mr. McDonnell was attorney general. They speak often and have met in recent months.

On the other hand, he and Mr. Deeds have not met, although Mr. Wilder said the two would meet this week. And while the former governor and Mr. Deeds have spoken, Mr. Wilder said the conversations have not been substantive.

Representatives for the two candidates would not speculate on Mr. Wilder’s potential endorsement, which he said he would announce in a statement.

Efforts have certainly been made on Mr. Deeds’ behalf.

President Obama called Mr. Wilder a month ago to discuss Mr. Deeds and the president’s people have called and an aide paid him a visit, Mr. Wilder said.

Asked if he would be disappointing the president if he were not to endorse Mr. Deeds, Mr. Wilder said, “I campaigned across this country as hard as anybody and argued against many of the people who now say they support the president. I’ve given the president a great deal of time, attention and every other kind of things. I think that speaks for itself.”

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