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'92 Could Be the Year for a Black Candidate

By Godfrey SperlingGodfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist. / May 28, 1991



THE void of well-known Democrats as contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination will soon be filled, according to national party chairman Ron Brown. Yet at recent Monitor breakfasts both Lloyd Bentsen and Richard Gephardt showed no interest in running. And others so often referred to as likely candidates - Mario Cuomo and Sam Nunn, for example - continue to talk as though their entrance in the race is unlikely.

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This disinclination to run stems, of course, from the president's formidable political position. His Persian Gulf victory has cooled off the ardor of Democrats to take him on, leaving a vacuum. But this backing away from running by leading potential candidates provides a rare opportunity for others. Sen. Jay Rockefeller is, he says, ``testing the waters.'' And Paul Tsongas is running too.

This vacuum increases the possibility that a black will be placed on the Democratic presidential ticket next year.

Does this mean a black presidential candidate? Probably not. It seems doubtful that even Gov. Douglas Wilder, who was an early entrant in the race, could win enough white votes in the primaries to gain the delegates he would need for the No. 1 slot. But he just might make it to No. 2.

Jesse Jackson, too, is helped by this tepid Democratic interest in vying for the presidency. In get-togethers with reporters, Jackson always sounds as if he's running for president, although he's made no formal announcement.

Undoubtedly, he could put on a strong campaign, winning enough primaries to become a major force in selecting the eventual presidential nominee. Indeed, this time he might not ask for the second position on the ticket, as he did in '88; he might demand it and get it.

When denied the running-mate honor last time, Jackson never warmed up to Michael Dukakis. This was noted by black voters, who provided only half-hearted support for the Democratic ticket. (What if Wilder and Jackson contend against each other in the primaries? Where will the black vote go?)

The improved climate for black presidential candidates comes at a time when there is talk among Democratic leaders that a black should, at long last, make it on the ticket. Liberals in particular see it as an embarrassment that while they preach and work against discrimination, they are part of a process that has denied blacks access to the presidency or the vice presidency. This means that the Democratic presidential candidate - probably a white - will be under pressure to pick a black as running mate.

Such a nominee would certainly prefer Wilder to Jackson as his No. 2. He'd know that Jackson likes to run his own show, and would be reluctant to play second fiddle in a campaign. He'd know, too, that while Jackson has won over many white voters, he is also a threatening figure to many whites, particularly in the South. On the other hand, the nominee would appreciate Wilder's ability to be accepted by the voters as a representative of all the people and not as a black candidate.

Another black leader - Gen. Colin Powell - is getting attention in political circles. Is Powell a Democrat? If so, could he be induced to run for president? The early assumption among Washington observers was that Powell was a Republican, simply because his star has ascended rapidly under GOP presidents Reagan and Bush.

But now, in Bob Woodward's new book on the Iraq war, ``The Commanders,'' General Powell emerges as a critic of the president's going into battle without waiting for economic sanctions to have time to work. This alleged ``dove-ishness'' is being seen by some Democrats as an indication that the general is a Democrat at heart.

A black candidate in 1992? What many Democrats would dearly love would be to have Powell retire and be either their presidential or vice-presidential candidate next year.