RICHMOND, Va. — L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, who made history as the nation's first elected black governor, is preparing to campaign aggressively for Barack Obama, and predicted in an interview that the charismatic young candidate could shatter the Republican Party's virtual lock on the South.
"He's not race-less," Wilder said of Obama, "but the skin color is of no moment. I don't think he would be an easy target for the Republicans."
The unstinting embrace by Wilder, now the mayor of Richmond, could be important in Virginia and other southern states, where his reputation still looms large and the African-American vote could prove decisive in the Democratic nominating contest.
His lavish praise was also surprising. Wilder's frequent practice has been to haze fellow Democrats, either with public digs or a mischievous silence, if he believed they had not paid their dues or could challenge him for influence.
In a 90-minute interview, Wilder also denounced African-American activists who question whether Obama is "black enough" in his style or agenda, a criticism Wilder said comes simply because Obama does not share their interest in "the pimping of race."
He was also notably cool toward Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. He said that Clinton's explanations of her 2002 vote authorizing the Iraq war make no sense and that her polarizing personality makes her less electable than Obama in Virginia and similar moderate states.
Wilder, whose gift for theater is intact after a tumultuous life on the public stage, said he he won't make a formal endorsement for a month or so. He relishes his maverick reputation and remains unpredictable even in his unusual mayoral encore, where his days are consumed, apparently happily, with skirmishes over transit funding and police cadets. But he made it plain he hopes to make his endorsement echo beyond his Richmond base and throughout the South.
Wilder became a racial trail-blazer in the 1980s and early 1990s by downplaying race and cracking conservative, white voting blocs that once looked off-limits to a black man in the Old Dominion. In the interview Friday, he said Obama's style reminded him of his own, calling him a politician who "doesn't use race as badge, nor does he consider it a barrier."
He called the "black enough" criticism "inappropriate."
"What is blackness?" he asked. "Is it the way you talk? Do you got to say, 'Dey this, dey dat.' Or the way you dress? Or is it the forgiving of certain things? What is black enough? Is [Jesse] Jackson black enough? Is [Al] Sharpton black enough?"
Wilder's embrace of a fellow African-American may at first blush seem natural, but long-time political observers in this former Confederate capital said it was hardly a foregone conclusion given Wilder's independent streak.
In Obama's case, at least for now, it appears flattery will get him everywhere.
The former governor said he met Obama at one of the Washington correspondents' dinners, shortly after he was elected senator from Illinois in 2004. "I was very impressed with him — nice looking guy," Wilder recalled. "He came over to my table, as a matter of fact. He said very nice things — how he had been inspired by what we had done in Virginia, and it meant a lot to see that take place. And he wrote something similar to that in the book when he autographed it."
Wilder recalled that in his statewide races, some "were accusing me of not spending enough time in the black community, not recognizing that 85 percent of the vote was not in that community.
"Where was that criticism coming from?" he asked. "Some of the African-American community. They ultimately were supportive. But they were questioning the strategy."
Wilder flashed annoyance when he recalled conversations with people who say Obama "is a nice man — he's got a lot to learn."
"That's a put-down," Wilder said firmly. "What has he got to learn?"
Part of Wilder's sense of fraternity with Obama comes from the success the latter is achieving independent of the African-American establishment, with its high-profile representatives who are self-appointed but receive great deference.
"Certain black leaders would believe that you have to go through their prism: 'If I lay my hand on you, you're OK,' " Wilder said with a chuckle. "So many people have made a living off of the pimping of race. I told him when he runs, one of his big problems he would have is with the African-American leadership, as such. He didn't question it. He said, 'I think I know what you mean.' "
Virginia, once dependable for Republicans in presidential elections, has been moving inexorably toward toss-up status and is one of roughly nine states that Democrats are targeting as potential flips in 2008. "It's not a knee-jerk state," Wilder said. "It's not a red state — my God."
Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat who has endorsed Obama,said in an interview in his office on Friday: "Virginia is changing. It's not a one-party state anymore."
Wilder's role in 2008 politics is unfolding in piecemeal fashion — with a likely climax next month or in October.
"I've had several conversations with Obama," Wilder said. "Mrs. Clinton called when she was here, and I returned her call the next day or so, but we haven't talked. I haven't endorsed anybody yet, but I will."
"I don't see any downfall with either of them. But I've been tremendously impressed with Obama. ... He has the ability to be a uniter, more so than she. I think the country is tired of the 'us' and 'thems.'"
"The question keeps coming about Hillary, as polarizing as she is: Would she be the best candidate?" Wilder said. "People would probably disagree, but today, I think Obama would have the best chance of winning in a general election because he doesn't carry any baggage."
As to why Clinton is seen as polarizing, he said: "She's fine one on one. But when there's a group, she's a little drawn, a little reserved and somewhat testy — not relaxed."
He also made plain he finds her record on Iraq lame, and said he expects many Democrats will feel likewise.
"Let's not kid ourselves: The Iraq war is going to be a part of this election," he added. "It's not going to go away. . I would press her a little more. I would say to her, 'You don't sound like John Kerry. But you're saying you didn't vote for what George Bush did, but you voted to give him the authority. That's parsing it.' I would press the issue of: Do you regret it? She's never been straightforward about that."
Clinton's explanation that she and others thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction does not cut it, he said. "I have a lot of problems with that vote. Forget the weapons of mass destruction — let's put those on the side. But was Iraq at all involved with 9/11? No! No evidence of it, no place...Why attack Iraq now, when the enemy that attacked us needs to be ferreted out, found, sought, punished?"
Wilder, 76, is a lawyer and grandson of slaves who was the first African-American state senator in Virginia since Reconstruction. During his governorship from 1990 to 1994, he made a half-hearted run for the Democratic presidential nomination that flamed out in less than four months.
He said if anyone had told him during his own campaign that a black politician could be leading the fundraising competition, as Obama is doing, he would have been stunned. But he said even that success is subject to a double standard from some people who want Obama to run as a traditional black candidate.
"Someone asked me in Washington not too long ago, 'Where is all this money coming from?' " Wilder said, referring to Obama's fundraising prowess. "I said, 'The same place the others' money is coming from.' 'Well, will these people own him?' I said, 'Will they own the other candidates?'"
For all his shots at Clinton, Wilder said he respects her as a capable and "driven" politician. And, given the Democratic trend in the electorate, he thinks the next president will be either a black or a woman, and can even envision Clinton and Obama on the same ticket. "People are ready," he said. "Look what Deval Patrick did — came from nowhere and won the governorship of Massachusetts."
Wilder recalled that he was told that rural whites would never vote for him. "'Lo and behold, I started going up into the mountains with those mountaineers and coal miners," he said. "They embraced me — wouldn't let me go. Some of the strongest support I had. And that's why I feel today that Americans are fair-minded people."