Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder's withdrawal from the Democratic presidential race has given other candidates fresh hopes of winning the Maryland primary March 3.
Wilder might have won the primary: He led in a recent poll of state Democrats and had a solid base among blacks,who total about 25 percent of the state population.
Wilder canceled several appearances today in Maryland, which would have been an important state in his campaign because of his inability to make much headway in New Hampshire, where the first primary will be held Feb. 18. Today also is the deadline for supporters of the presidential candidates to file as delegate candidates on the March 3 ballot.
After Wilder's withdrawal announcement yesterday, other Democratic candidates began competing to win over Wilder's supporters in Maryland, but it's not clear who stands to gain the most.
"I just think it makes it [the primary] very wide open and somewhat unpredictable," said John T. Willis, a Democratic activist and political historian. "It's a true test for the other candidates of what their appeal might be in the black community."
Two of Wilder's key state supporters said they were surprised by his announcement yesterday and offered different views of who would benefit most by his departure.
"From my point of view, it clearly puts [Arkansas Gov. Bill] Clinton in the driver's seat and makes him the leading candidate," said Jack Johnson, deputy state's attorney in Prince George's County and the county leader of Wilder's campaign.
Johnson said that most black leaders who weren't committed to Wilder were in Clinton's camp before Wilder's announcement. He said black leaders "haven't heard from anybody else."
But state Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, D-Prince George's, said it's unclear who blacks will support because they "don't really know any of the other candidates."
Trotter, a state leader of Wilder's campaign, said black voters have "heard a little more" of Clinton but "there are some questions we have to ask him on the issues."
He said a number of the candidates "are quite attractive."
Four other candidates besides Clinton remain in the race for the Democratic nomination for president: Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas and former California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Clinton's and Kerrey's supporters were quick to claim that Wilder's supporters would join them.
"I think it helps us," said Baltimore City Councilman Martin O'Malley, a Kerrey campaign official. "Kerrey's to the left of Clinton, and I think it makes him a more attractive candidate to black voters."
Citing an example, he said that Del. Frank Boston, D-City, had signed on as a Kerrey delegate.
"We're on the phones," O'Malley said. "We've been reaching out to community black activists and elected officials in the state."
Jay Rouse, a regional Clinton campaign coordinator, insisted, however, that Wilder's exit "enhances our potential for winning the state more than any other candidate."
"I think we've worked very hard in the African-American community," Rouse said, "and have a lot of support in that community."