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Beyer Scrambling After Wilder Rebuff

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 22, 1997; Page B01

Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder has turned his back on fellow Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. after accusing him of waffling, leaving Beyer to scramble for other ways to excite black voters about his candidacy for governor.

Wilder, 66, ended three months of suspense late Monday by declaring on his weekly radio talk show in Richmond: "I want to make it clear right as of tonight I will not be endorsing any candidate for office and would wish them both well."

Wilder's refusal to support his 1989 running mate adds to a growing list of woes for Beyer, whose money shortage has forced him to cut back on television advertising in the campaign's final days.

The former governor's political striptease had been widely portrayed as selfish showmanship. But Wilder, a grandson of slaves who was the first black American to be elected governor, remains a revered figure in many parts of Virginia, with his portrait flanking that of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in many a church's fellowship hall.

Both Beyer and his Republican rival, James S. Gilmore III, had courted Wilder aggressively after the former governor indicated in August that he might cross party lines with his endorsement. In a year when apathy reigns among most voter groups, party strategists had said Wilder's nod could give a huge boost to turnout among African Americans, who make up about 15 percent of Virginia's 3 million voters.

Now, Democratic leaders hope that purpose will be served by a Northern Virginia rally featuring President Clinton planned for a day or two before the Nov. 4 election. And several party officials said get-out-the-vote drives have been organized with Asian, Hispanic and African American voters on the assumption that Wilder would not be in the picture.

Several black leaders, meanwhile, contend that Wilder no longer holds the sway he once did. The Rev. Barbara E. Ingram, pastor of Metropolitan African-American Baptist Church in Richmond, maintains that black voters prefer to make up their own minds.

"It was really a myth that he was going to deliver a big bloc of votes, especially given the closeness of the election," she said. "I don't think they were waiting to see what he was going to do."

Wilder, as much as he seemed to relish the attention, made much the same point on his show. "I think too much emphasis has gotten placed on who endorses whom for public office," he said.

In a replay of his long-delayed endorsement of former enemy Charles S. Robb (D) in the 1994 U.S. Senate race, Wilder had drawn out the drama by first saying he would not make an endorsement until after a debate between the two candidates on his weekly radio show early this month. Then he ensured huge audiences the last two weeks by continuing what he had called "prayerful consideration."

On the afternoon of the debate, Clinton called Wilder to urge him to back Beyer. Last week, Beyer met privately with Wilder at Wilder's office at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Earlier, Wilder had dined with Gilmore and his advisers. When Gilmore issued a statement on affirmative action, his office faxed it to Wilder before sending it to reporters.

On Monday night's show, Wilder stretched out his announcement for close to two hours, chatting genially about the weather and the Redskins and the Richmond City Council, interspersing his musings with calls from listeners full of praise for his administration.

Wilder hinted at what was to come by criticizing Beyer for tardiness in supporting a law that Wilder championed in 1993, to limit Virginia handgun buyers to one purchase a month.

Beyer has said that he always supported the measure, and he was on board by the time the General Assembly opened that winter.

"He wasn't there when the roll was called," Wilder said. "Everybody supports it now that it's passed. But when we wanted to get Mr. Beyer to come out there for it, he didn't come out for it."

Wilder derided speculation about his motives in withholding his nod in the governor's race. "I never have been involved with wanting to be, or interested in being, a kingmaker, or a person that anyone would need my support or need my endorsement for their success," he said.

Finally, shortly before signing off at 10 p.m., Wilder delivered the news that Beyer had feared but expected.

"I want to make it unmistakably clear, there will be no endorsement from me," he said.

Beyer, told about Wilder's announcement after a campaign speech in Fairfax County, reacted with gracious indifference that he had weeks to rehearse. "I had always hoped for Governor Wilder's endorsement, but I'm prepared to win on my own," he said. "He will remain a very good friend."

Wilder abandoned his party once before, in 1994, when he mounted an independent campaign against Robb, who also was facing Republican Oliver L. North and independent J. Marshall Coleman.

Paul Goldman, who was the strategist behind Wilder's 1989 victory but said he has not spoken to him since a falling-out over the Senate race, said Wilder had long nursed a resentment "that the high command of the Democratic Party had treated him as the black governor, as opposed to the governor."

Gilmore's advisers had not expected Wilder's endorsement, but figured the Republican benefited from each day that Wilder remained on the sidelines. Yesterday, a gleeful Gilmore seized on Wilder's non-endorsement as "a really devastating situation for Don Beyer."

Gov. George Allen (R) piled on: "It tells volumes that he's the last Democrat governor and he doesn't care to endorse the Democrat nominee."

Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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