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Wilder's Nod Remains Elusive

Rosalind Helderman

So what exactly was the White House thinking?

Sending a top envoy to pressure former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to endorse Creigh Deeds three full months before Election Day, in a week when it would look particularly badly for Deeds if news of such a meeting leaked and wasn't followed quickly by an endorsement?

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Virginia politics and Wilder's role in them knows Wilder likes nothing more than withholding his nod, forcing months of personal wooing and press reports about his intentions. That's not to mention the fact that he has a history of tension with Deeds, whose candidacy for attorney general in 2005 Wilder declined to back because of the rural Democrat's strong support of gun rights.

And yet still there is news this morning, first reported by Politico, that the White House sent political director Patrick Gaspard to Richmond on Wednesday to meet with Wilder for two hours and encourage him to jump in.

In one sense, the campaign is damned no matter what it does. Wilder likes to be courted, so he's got to be courted. Everyone knows he's likely to spill the details of that process and remain neutral for a while, even if he eventually comes home.

White House press Secretary Robert Gibbs suggested to reporters today that there would be nothing remarkable about a discussion between Gaspard and Wilder, our colleague Mike Shear reports.

"So the political director went to see the former governor about supporting the Democratic nominee?" Gibbs said when asked about the meeting.

When he was reminded that Wilder declined to endorse Deeds in 2005, Gibbs
added: "I think you can probably find a clip that says that for like the last four gubernatorial races. That and I can also confirm that the sun also rose in the East."

Indeed, Wilder's got a history of making trouble for fellow Democratic office-seekers as long as Mark Warner's arm. In 1997, he refused to endorse Democrat Don Beyer in the governor's race, which helped Republican James S. Gilmore. In 2005, he only backed Gov. Tim Kaine at the last minute. Likewise, he waited to endorse Democrat James Webb in his race against Republican George Allen in 2006 until a week before Election Day.

But to meet with Wilder, even before Deeds has gotten a chance to sit down with him? (We reported just last week that, according to Wilder, the two have traded phone calls but not yet sat down since Deeds' primary victory.) To do that the very week major Democratic donor and top African-American businesswoman Sheila Johnson backed Republican Bob McDonnell, adding to a narrative of possible weakness for Deeds in the black community?

"I have no idea what the White House was thinking," said one top Virginia Democrat. "Doug Wilder is not going to be moved by anybody and the most important outreach needs to come from Creigh himself."

There's no immediate reaction from the Deeds camp, though a source close to the campaign confirms Gaspard did give Deeds a heads up before setting out for Richmond. And it's worth noting that Deeds just snagged new help from a black Democrat with a bit more name recognition than the former governor: President Obama himself will be in Virginia in August to campaign on his behalf.

UPDATE: Deeds' spokesman Jared Leopold has responded: "Creigh is looking forward to sitting down with Gov. Wilder. Creigh admires Gov. Wilder's ground breaking achievements throughout his career, but he recognizes that the governor is an indepent leader and will make up his own mind."

By Rosalind Helderman  |  July 24, 2009; 10:15 AM ET
Categories:  2009 Governor's Race , Barack Obama , Creigh Deeds , Election 2009 , Robert F. McDonnell , Rosalind Helderman  
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