THE OTHER DAY L. Douglas Wilder, current mayor of Richmond and former governor of Virginia, was asked whether he planned to endorse any of the three candidates running for governor this year, and, if so, when he might do so. That question has generated more than passing interest in the commonwealth, since an endorsement conferred by Mr. Wilder, the first black man elected a state's governor, could carry some weight in what appears to be a close race. But Mr. Wilder -- theatrical, charmingly manipulative, a political gamesman of the first order -- demurred on whether and when he might make his choice known. "First of all, I haven't committed to the first," he said. "And second of all, I haven't committed to the second."
Talk about keeping them guessing.
Mr. Wilder, who's made plenty of endorsements in his day, isn't really allergic to political commitments; he just loves the sport of politics too much to stop playing a moment before he must. To prolong his amusement -- and extract every possible concession while he's at it -- Mr. Wilder has concocted a splendid little game for the three gubernatorial candidates. He has devised a 10-point agenda that he says would empower Richmond and other Virginia towns to fix urban problems, and he has summoned the three contestants -- er, candidates -- to present it to them. The result has been the most entertaining spectacle in what has been an otherwise dreary and negative race, as each of the three has hastened to Mr. Wilder's office in City Hall to pay obeisance to the kingmaker himself and warmly embrace his wish list, or most of it.
The three -- Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine; Republican former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore; and state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who's running as an independent -- have each enthusiastically backed Mr. Wilder's proposals, which would, among other things, promote alternatives to housing projects; hold parents responsible for their children's disruptive classroom behavior; bar city lawmakers from enriching departing officials with over-the-top severance pay; encourage public-private deals to build and operate jails; and establish emergency anti-crime programs in especially violent localities. Messrs. Potts and Kaine declined to support two of Mr. Wilder's ideas that would cut into public revenue, while Mr. Kilgore -- maybe figuring that he had nothing to lose since Mr. Wilder, nominally a Democrat, has never endorsed a Republican -- simply backed the whole thing.
Mr. Wilder has now prolonged the contestants' agony, and his own enjoyment, by saying that he will issue no endorsement before Oct. 9, the day scheduled for the first and only candidates' debate that will be televised statewide. In the meantime, he has managed to train the attention of the men who may be governor on a city that has long been ignored by statewide candidates who seemed to write it off as too poor, black and troubled to count. At 74, the wily old master of Virginia politics has not lost his touch. Bravo.