Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder -- the grandson of slaves and the first black to be elected governor of any state -- now wants to be the first directly elected mayor of Richmond.

The prognosis? Wilder should sweep the white vote, but he may have problems in the predominantly black portions of the capital city. That begins to tell you something about the always complex and occasionally bizarre career of this singular political personality.

You may recall that Wilder once wanted to be president. He launched his campaign in September 1991 after serving less than two years as governor. Five months later, during his annual speech to the General Assembly, he announced he was no longer a candidate for president.

In April 1992 Wilder was publicly mulling a new campaign and subsequently moved to deny Sen. Charles Robb's bid to be renominated. On Jan. 12, 1994, again before the General Assembly, Wilder said he was through with that race, too.

But not altogether. Later in 1994 Wilder got back into the Senate race as an independent. Then he withdrew again. Meanwhile, though, he managed to get on TV a lot.

Then came Wilder's bid for academic prominence. In June 1998 Virginia Union University, Wilder's alma mater, announced that the former governor would assume the presidency of the historically black institution. But Wilder didn't even make it to August. He withdrew as Virginia Union's president-elect, blasting the school for what he called financial, legal and management problems -- all of which were later shown to be baseless charges.

Those are just a few of the more sterling moments along the Wilder path. He also played radio host at a Richmond station for a while and continues to write a column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. And, of course, he participated in 5,386 public feuds and joined the Republican Party.

Okay, that last line exaggerates a bit -- but only barely. Despite all the stops and starts, Wilder carved out a legacy for himself: No single person contributed more to the unraveling of the once-dominant Virginia Democratic Party during the 1990s than Doug Wilder.

It wasn't just that he picked fights with state and national party colleagues. He also indicted the state party's governing rationale and simultaneously undermined a decades-long, bipartisan consensus that favored modest, incremental advances in education, infrastructure and health care.

Two great battles have characterized Virginia politics: race and resources.

On race, Wilder's inauguration as governor in 1990 was the great symbolic break with Virginia's reactionary, often self-defeating past. It was broadly celebrated.

On resources, Wilder proved captain to an ignoble retreat.

Taking office as the national economy sank into recession and drained state revenue along with it, Wilder could have expressed regret about the inevitable but necessary cuts in the state budget. When things got better, he could get Virginia back on track. That had been the commonwealth's habit in the post-World War II era under Democratic and Republican governors. No one really challenged the basic proposition that state government could be a constructive force.

Until Wilder, that is. He most unreluctantly exploited the bad news in the hopes of riding the recession to national prominence as the conservative black alternative to Jesse Jackson.

He wasn't subtle. To get there, Wilder presented himself as one who could distinguish between "niceties and necessities." Only there weren't enough niceties to cover the $2 billion he had to pull out of state commitments to avoid a general tax increase. So public schools, higher education, mental health, highway construction and state employees took the hit.

That was bad enough, but recoverable. Wilder's rhetoric was the greater sin. He tore into the Democratic legislative leadership and his two Democratic gubernatorial predecessors -- Robb and Gerald L. Baliles (for whom I wrote speeches) -- as fiscally irresponsible and even reckless.

Accordingly, Wilder gave Virginia Republicans -- or, at least those occupying the populist wing of the GOP -- the one thing that they had not been able to give themselves: credibility.

Wilder's dance prepared the stage for the Republican takeover of the legislature, which began before he even left office, and the subsequent election to the governor's office of George Allen and Jim Gilmore. Both men embraced (to politically beneficial effect) the same hyperbolic, anti-government rhetoric that Wilder employed.

No surprise, then, that Virginia Republicans, with the populists gripping the tiller these days, now lionize Wilder and invite him to their party functions.

The conservative editorial writers of the Richmond paper love him too. And in the capital of the Confederacy -- where the "magnolia mentality" Wilder long ago denounced still holds sway -- he's bagged the white vote for mayor.

It's just that "Democrat" Wilder is the reform candidate this time around.

He wants to revitalize the city and promises to end "the politics of division and diversion." He will do wonders, just wait, for safer neighborhoods, public health, affordable housing and better schools. Just recently, Wilder showed his common touch by trading in his Mercedes for a day to ride a city bus.

It's almost cinematic, this man's march through public life. Doug Wilder gives you high drama, low comedy, even sequels. You need only be ready to suspend your disbelief.

gcmorse@cox.net