Possible Bid By Wilson In '96 Roils GOP Field

California governor would start with big power base in West

HE campaigns with all the zest and animation of soap. Not long ago he registered the lowest approval rating of any sitting governor in US history. He hasn't politicked in the key primary state of New Hampshire since Gerald Ford was running for the White House.

Yet Pete Wilson, sitting governor of California and long one of the most tenacious political candidates in the nation, increasingly looks like a serious contender for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination. As a heavyweight with a big state base and the ability to raise lots of money, Governor Wilson would pose an immediate threat to front-runner Sen. Bob Dole - and, down the road, perhaps to candidate Bill Clinton as well.

By no means is Wilson assured of carrying the GOP banner next November. His support of abortion rights and a lingering reputation as a moderate could cause him trouble with conservatives. But at this point he may be the candidate Democrats fear most. ``Wilson's got 20 percent of a presidential victory in his camp. Take away California from Clinton, and what's left?'' says Sam Popkin, political scientist at the University of California at San Diego.

For now Wilson is coy about his national intentions. During his reelection campaign in 1994, in which he overcame a double-digit deficit to defeat state treasurer Kathleen Brown, he promised constitutents that he wouldn't run for president.

``Republicans desperately want to hold onto the governorship, particularly on the eve of controlling the state Assembly and with a good shot at winning the [state] Senate in 1996,'' says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of Californa at Berkeley. ``There is no republican guaranteed to win if Pete Wilson is not there.''

Many in his own party in California don't want him to become a candidate. Under current state law Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, would take over if Wilson left for Washington.

Furthermore, Wilson's California political agenda might be left dangling if he's gladhanding out of state. He has proposed a 15 percent tax cut, tougher penalties for carjackers and drive-by shooters, repeal of tenure for teachers, and state education and welfare reform.

``The threshhold question for Pete Wilson right now is whether he can do more for California on these issues from Sacramento or Washington,'' says Dan Schnur, press secretary and campaign chairman for Wilson.

But despite official demurrals Wilson is increasingly acting like a man with campaign swings through Iowa in his future. He has quietly begun paying off campaign debts, meeting with potential strategists, and asking friends to postpone endorsements of other candidates.

Advisers say he has told them he will make up his mind about running for president by April 1.

The withdrawal of like-minded potential candidates, such as Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts, is perhaps what has tilted Wilson towards jumping into the race.

Many GOP politicos, after all, grumble that the current field is inadequate. The scenario runs like this: Dole is too Washingtonian. Sen. Phil Gramm is too mean. Lamar Alexander is ... well, who is Lamar Alexander, anyway?

``Wilson didn't intend to run but the vacuum is drawing him into the race,'' says Sal Russo, a Golden State GOP strategist.

The question is, how can Wilson fill the vacuum? What would he provide that the current field of candidates does not?

To his backers Wilson is at the cutting edge of issues that mean much to Republican voters. They point to his support of Prop 187, which aims to deny state services to illegal immigrants, and his role as one of the first US governors to sign ``three strikes and you're out'' tough sentencing legislation.

Now the California governor has seized on the backlash against affirmative action as a next big thing, endorsing a California ballot initiative that would prohibit such preferences for minorities in all state hiring and education.

All this may add up to an emerging national profile. Or it may not.

Wilson looks like a political colossus when viewed from California, but in New Hampshire he may appear to be just another politician who doesn't wear the right kind of shoes for slush.

Conservatives, after all, don't like Wilson's abortion-rights leanings. Senator Gramm, among others, has shown as keen a nose as Wilson for identifying voter concerns and latching onto rising issues. And then there's Wilson's wooden speaking style.

``Wilson has to find the right niche as a primary candidate,'' says Sal Russo. ``He hasn't been a national figure.''

Support from friendly governors, such as Massachusetts's Weld, could help. So could money. According to George Gorton, Wilson's political consultant for 24 years, Wilson would have no trouble raising $20 million within the state for a presidential bid.

The 1994 governor's race netted $24 million and a US Senate bid - under the same contibution strictures as a presidential bid - netted $16 million in just one year.

Wilson's political savvy as an organizer, coalition builder, and campaign tactitian is legendary - surprising pollster and opponents in two wins for San Diego mayor, two for the US Senate, and in his last gubernatorial race.

California, over the last three decades, has been the very fount of GOP presidential hopes. Ex-marine Wilson may yet prove to be Senator Dole's nemesis.

``Wilson hasn't been to New Hampshire since he campaigned for Gerald Ford against Ronald Reagan in 1976,'' notes Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School.

``If I were one of his opponents, I'd be leaning heavy on that information right now.''

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