With polls indicating his popular support fading rapidly, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace has scheduled a news conference Wednesday to announce whether he will seek a fifth term or bring his long political career to an end.
Wallace, paralyzed, hard of hearing and repeatedly hospitalized in recent years, has made only one public appearance in the last month, and the speculation today was that the governor, 66, plans to retire after an unprecedented four terms.
But Wallace, who has dominated Alabama politics for a quarter-century, has a reputation for doing the unexpected. "I honestly don't know what he's going to do," press secretary Frank Martins said. "I don't know if he's running or not."
Recent polls have shown Wallace, first elected in 1962, running third in a Democratic field crowded with younger rivals. Martins said Wallace "isn't impressed by polls" but he acknowledged that the governor has made no move to organize a campaign or raise money for a race.
The filing deadline for the June 3 Alabama primary is Friday.
A poll two weeks ago by Natalie Davis, a professor at Birmingham Southern College, showed that Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley had the support of 29 percent of those surveyed; former governor Fob James, 21 percent; Wallace, 12 percent; Attorney General Charles Graddick, 11 percent; former lieutenant governor George McMillan, 10 percent; Billy Joe Camp, Wallace's former press secretary, 2 percent, and 14 percent were undecided.
Until February, Wallace was second to Baxley in most polls.
"Wallace is fading," said Davis, who conducts monthly polls in the state. "His health has continued to decline. The few times he has appeared in public he hasn't looked good and he hasn't acted like he was running."
Davis said three-fourths of those polled in recent months said Wallace should not seek another term, and almost two-thirds said they think he isn't healthy enough for the job.
"The voters are saying, 'It's over for George Wallace. It's time to move on to someone else,' " Davis said.
If Wallace announces his retirement, it will bring to an end one of the most controversial careers of the modern political era.
A onetime bantamweight boxer, Wallace won his first term as governor as an arch-segregationist, pledging to stand in schoolhouse doors to prevent desegregation, a pledge he made good on in 1963 at the University of Alabama. "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," he said in his first inaugural address.
Riding a wave of white, working-class frustration both in Alabama and across the nation, Wallace ran four populist, antibusing, antiestablishment presidential campaigns. For all practical purposes, his presidential hopes ended in a Laurel, Md., parking lot in May 1972 when he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. He has been confined to a wheelchair since.
Wallace was elected governor of Alabama in 1962, 1970, 1974 and 1982. Barred by state law from succeeding himself, he ran his first wife, Lurleen, for governor in 1966. She won by a large margin, but died in office two years later.
Wallace's 1982 race may have been his most remarkable. Attempting what some regarded as an impossible comeback, he ran as a born-again populist who would represent "all citizens of Alabama" and bring jobs to the state.
He appealed to blacks to forget the past and accept him as a "compassionate, caring man." And he pledged not to "get paralyzed in the head" or turn a deaf ear to voters. He was elected to his fourth term overwhelmingly.