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Wilder's Dropout May Give Boost to Robb Campain

By Donald P. Baker and Kent Jenkins Jr.
The Washington Post

The re-election campaign of Virginia Sen. Charles S. Robb likely got a substantial boost Thursday when his longtime rival, former governor L. Douglas Wilder, dropped his independent candidacy.

Robb no longer faces the prospect that a fellow Democrat will deeply divide his party, cost him critical black support and allow Republican nominee Oliver L. North to claim a victory on Nov. 8.

"Certainly Robb's status has changed dramatically," said Robert D. Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Despite what by all accounts is a lethargic campaign, Robb emerges as one of the more fortunate political figures."

A VCU poll this week showed Wilder with 13 percent support, and nearly half of those respondents named Robb as their second choice, compared with North and independent candidate J. Marshall Coleman. "Most of Wilder's voters will probably come home to Chuck Robb," agreed Mary Washington College political scientist Mark Rozell. In the VCU survey, Robb was 3 points behind North.

The incumbent was clearly elated as he campaigned Thursday. "This makes a very dramatic change in the dynamics of the race," Robb said at a news conference in Alexandria. "It will make it easier for me to pull all the traditional elements of the Democratic coalition behind my campaign."

And while Robb seems sure to benefit, North could be damaged significantly. Strategically, he had been counting on Wilder's presence to siphon Robb supporters and, by dividing the electorate among four candidates, to decrease the total number of votes North would need to win.

Wilder also had served North's purpose by attacking Robb on the stump and in debates. "Oliver North also won't have Doug Wilder around to do the dirty work in his campaign," Rozell said. "You could say that Ollie North won't have Doug Wilder to kick Chuck Robb around any more."

North, whose greatest challenge from the start has been to broaden his fairly narrow base, now must sharpen his differences with Robb even more, analysts said.

"It brings into play the possibility that North will focus even more on character than North has to date," Holsworth said.

The GOP nominee insisted Thursday that he would profit from the narrowed field.

"This lifts the fog off the battlefield," North said. "It leaves a very clear choice between Chuck Robb's liberal agenda and Oliver North's conservative agenda. I have what the people want."

North long has tried to discount Coleman's impact, and he said Wilder's departure leaves him in a head-to-head battle with Robb. "This is the main event," he said. "This is what I've wanted for months."

Coleman, campaigning in western Virginia, maintained that the day's development presented him with sudden opportunity. "I can get votes from the disaffected, those morally uncertain about North and Robb. About half of the voters still have not solidly made up their minds. This makes my message a lot simpler," he said.

Officially, Wilder attributed his decision to his poor showing in recent polls and his inability to raise enough money to compete with the major party candidates. "Though I don't attack great significance to polls, they are influential, and the influence on financing capabilities is great," Wilder noted in a six-paragraph statement distributed by his campaign.

For several black political scientists, however, it was Wilder's concern for his place in history - the nation's first elected black governor and a politician who has never lost an election - outweighed his oft-stated contempt for Robb.

"As much as he wanted to hurt Robb, he didn't want to undermine what he had achieved as a political figure, said W. Avon Drake, former head of African American studies at VCU. "He didn't want to go down with a bloody nose, take a whipping."

"Wilder is able to read the political winds," said University of Virginia political scientist Paula McClain. "No one, least of all Doug Wilder, wants a political footnote as a spoiler. He did what was in his own best interest."

Wilder refused to take questions from reporters when he showed up at his headquarters in Richmond about noon. But his statement said, "I am a realist. I know when to hold them and when to fold them. ... I have seen that the two-party system in Virginia is strong and that the difficulty in financing independent candidacies is real."