WASHINGTON — Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder withdrew from the U.S. Senate race in Virginia on Thursday, potentially giving a substantial boost to incumbent Democrat Charles S. Robb's efforts to keep his Senate seat in his race against Republican Oliver L. North.
Democratic powerbrokers, including Vice President Al Gore, and personal friends of the state's first black governor had passionately urged Wilder--a Democrat who had been running as an independent--to give up his bid for the sake of the party, which is struggling to retain control of the Senate.
"I have seen that the two-party system in Virginia is strong and that the difficulty in financing independent candidacies is real," Wilder said in a statement. "I am a realist," he added. "I know when to hold them and when to fold them."
The announcement appears to have shifted the balance in the close race.
"Yesterday North was a narrow favorite, today Robb is a narrow favorite," said Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia.
But both candidates have their problems with the electorate.
Robb, Sabato said, is "seen as having a relatively weak record and being closely tied to Clinton, who is enormously unpopular in Virginia."
Robb's admitted extramarital relationships do not help him either, Sabato said.
But negative sentiment is not as strong against Robb as it is against North. A recent poll showed that 41% of those voters in the state who are undecided considered North an unacceptable choice, while 28% saw Robb that way.
"For many voters, their evaluation of Oliver North starts and ends with Iran-Contra," said John McGlennon, a professor of political science at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "Almost half of the voters say under no circumstance would they vote for North."
Robb seemed to be buoyed by the news of Wilder's withdrawal.
"Gov. Wilder is a formidable candidate, a formidable campaigner and adversary," Robb said while touring an elementary school in Alexandria, according to the Associated Press. "And having him no longer on the other side gives me an opportunity to bring together all the pieces of the Democratic coalition."
Recent polls have shown North and Robb each with support from about one-third of those interviewed. Wilder had the support of 12% to 13% of the electorate, according to a poll taken shortly before his withdrawal. Republican J. Marshall Coleman, also running as an independent, had a slightly smaller share.
Some Republicans in the state predicted that Wilder's withdrawal will not have much impact on the Robb-North race.
Dave Johnson, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia said Wilder and Coleman "were fast becoming irrelevant."
Robb is likely to pick up support from African Americans, who make up about 18% of the electorate, both because of his record as governor and because of his late father-in-law, former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was a champion of civil rights.
"They were already starting to move in the direction of Sen. Robb," McGlennon said. "Now it will be much easier for him to get the solid backing of African American voters."