Doug Wilder's Short Foray into Presidential Politics 

On March 25, 1991 Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder authorized formation of an exploratory committee to examine a possible presidential bid (>), in late August he tested the waters with a visit to New Hampshire (>), and on September 13, from the steps of the state Capitol in Richmond, he announced his candidacy, calling himself "longest of long shots."

Wilder hoped to capitalize on the reputation for fiscal restraint he had gained in his first 20 months as governor.  Faced with a decline in tax revenues and a predicted deficit of $2.2 billion, Wilder had responded by implementing a round of budget cuts rather than increasing taxes. 

Critics, already concerned by what they perceived as Wilder's inattention to the state, questioned whether he could run the state while traveling around the country looking for votes.  Others suggested that since Wilder could not run to succeed himself as governor, he was seeking to position himself as a convention power broker or a vice presidential prospect.  Wilder invariably responded, "I expect to be elected President of the United States."  

Wilder campaigned on a theme of "putting America first," designed to appeal to white middle-class voters as well as blacks.  A six-page fundraising letter signed by Arthur Ashe emphasized Wilder's fiscal common sense and described him as someone "not afraid to challenge the Washington Political Establishment."  Wilder was rated as a major candidate -- one of the "six pac" -- and participated on an equal footing at such events as the AFL-CIO forum in Detroit and the December 15 televised debate on NBC. 

By the middle of November, however, Wilder's campaign was described as "sputtering."  He had opened a headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, not far from Washington, but not until November 11 did he name his campaign manager.  On November 16 he opened his New Hampshire headquarters, in Concord; nonetheless his lack of organization in the state was conspicuous.  Wilder's strategists said he hoped to do well in Maryland's March 3 primary and in the Southern primaries the following week.  Wilder was criticized for not moving beyond generalities.  Fundraising fell short.  As his campaign failed to pick up momentum, Wilder turned increasingly to courting support of the black community and black leaders.[1]

Media coverage often compared Wilder with Jesse Jackson, but the two were very different. Jackson, the activist, had espoused a clear liberal agenda and had a rousing style that could turn on a crowd.  Wilder, the elected official, was more low key and was trying to appeal to more moderate and conservative middle-class voters.  The tension between the two became apparent toward the end of December when Wilder said of Jackson that, "He's asked people not to support me."  (Jackson was in fact encouraging activists to wait before making any commitments).
One of Wilder's few specific proposals was to immediately eliminate $50 billion in waste from the federal budget and use the resulting funds to finance a $35 billion tax cut for the middle class and $15 billion in grants to restore American cities.

On January 8, at the end of his State of the Commonwealth address, Wilder surprised observers by announcing his withdrawal from the presidential race.  He said he did not think it was impossible to both campaign and govern but admitted he had found it difficult.[2]  Wilder's name surfaced again in early June as a possible running mate for independent Ross Perot.

1. Sam Fulwood III.  "Wilder Shifts Campaign's Focus to Woo Black Voters."  Los Angeles Times, December 26, 1991, page A1.  Race was still a factor in some voters' minds.  Fulwood recounts a startling incident told to him by a Wilder campaign worker.  During a showing of possible Wilder television spots to a focus group in New Hampshire, a woman had shouted, "Oh, my God, he's a black man."

2. The responsibilities of running a state had already caused New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to forgo a presidential bid in December.  Wilder's announcement came at the beginning of a 10-week legislative session and at a time when he would be presenting the first budget with his own priorities.

Donald P. Baker. "Wilder, Launching Campaign in New Hampshire, Gets Granite Reception."  Washington Post, November 17, 1991

Donald P. Baker.  "Wilder Says Campaign Was a Mistake."  Washington Post, January 10, 1992.

More Resources:
C-SPAN: Doug Wilder.
The Library of Virginia: A Guide to the Lawrence Douglas Wilder Campaign Papers, 1976-1992.