MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Gov. George C. Wallace was in classic form Wednesday, chomping on a big cigar and blasting away at the federal government in his famous drawl as he opened a news conference at the new Statehouse offices here.
But he refused to answer the question that was uppermost in the minds of every reporter there and that is the biggest political question in Alabama this year: Would he seek an unprecedented fifth term this year as governor?
The question had taken on heightened urgency because only hours before the governor called his afternoon news conference his press secretary and close aide, 47-year-old Billy Joe Camp, had announced that he will resign Friday to run for governor.
Camp's announcement is the strongest indicator so far that Wallace will not seek another term. The Democratic primary is June 3.
But Wallace, playing his cards close to his chest, as is his political habit, refused to say whether he would or wouldn't--despite repeated questioning from the 40 or so reporters who had come from as far away as Atlanta for the crowded press session in a book-lined conference room.
"Yes, I could run for governor if I wanted to, and I may want to," Wallace said. "But I haven't definitely made up my mind one way or the other."
Wallace conceded that he had been "wishy washy" about making a decision even with members of his own staff--including Camp. "At times I've written out statements that I would not run," he said. But he added: "I made a statement written out that I would run. I wrote one of them myself about two weeks ago."
'Camp Is a Fine Man'
When asked about Camp's plans, the governor, who is hard of hearing and at times had to have questions repeated, responded: "Mr. Camp is a fine man. That's all I can say about him. He made a fine Cabinet officer for the state of Alabama."
Wallace, 66, said Camp's decision to resign and begin a campaign for governor would not affect his own plans. "I don't think anybody would affect my plans," said Wallace, who has dominated Alabama politics for nearly a quarter of a century. "I'm either going to run for governor or not."
The governor, who is paralyzed from the waist down and has been confined to a wheelchair since he was shot by a would-be assassin in 1972, was also confident of his chances if he decides to seek reelection.
"If I run, yes, I can win," he said bluntly.
Health a Key Concern
Wallace's health has been a major political concern in Alabama. He has been treated with several painkilling medications and has been hospitalized frequently, including a recent weeklong stay earlier this month for a urinary tract infection.
Camp, in announcing his new political plans, said: "I'm not ready to make any official announcement, but I'm resigning to commence a statewide political campaign." He said he had informed Wallace of his decision but refused to divulge what they had said in private.
Camp, a former Army major, was press secretary for Wallace's presidential bids in 1972 and 1976 and was the governor's press secretary from 1971 to 1978. He served as head of the Alabama public service commission before returning to the governor's office as press secretary in 1982.
Apologizes to Reporters
At his news conference, Wallace apologized to reporters who believed that he had something more important to say. "I hope you all get your expense account pay," he quipped.
Wallace said he had called the press news conference only to express his concern for the cuts in social programs mandated by the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction act--which he charged was going to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and the farmers of this country and cause many people to "suffer and in many cases die and lose their lives."