1996 White House Race Tests Wilson Tag as 'Comeback Kid'

HE has been called the most powerful unknown politician in America, the Beach Boy who went to law school, and a political chameleon with the wit of Johnny Carson ... if Johnny Carson were a prison warden.

Midwest-born, Yale educated, and Marine Corps disciplined, he's a political marathon man who doesn't just beat his opponents, but turns their campaigns, by one description, into "electoral anti-matter."

He is Illinois-born Peter Barton Wilson, present governor of California, two-time US senator, three-term San Diego mayor, state legislator, and advance man for Richard Nixon.

Still an enigma even in the state where he has won nine elections over 30 years, Governor Wilson is mounting the catapult that could launch him into the White House or on the political pavement alongside other 1996 Republican also-rans.

"Let there be no doubt in anyone's mind - I am running for president," Wilson said June 15 at his Sacramento headquarters, where he at long last changed the name of his presidential exploratory committee, formed in March, to simply the Wilson Presidential Committee. He has been through Iowa and Florida and will soon make another familiar stop, on "Larry King Live." Aides say Wilson still intends to make a formal declaration later in the summer in a multistate tour over several days, at which time he will speak about his qualifications, plans for the country, and reasons for entering the race.

Despite his latest declaration, pundits say the on-again-off-again nature of the Wilson candidacy announcement is another indication that his campaign is in disarray. "The rather extemporaneous way in which the campaign has been initiated makes it look as if he is playing this by ear," says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "It doesn't look as if he has much of a game plan."

The announcement had seemed to reverse a statement issued by the campaign earlier in the week in which Wilson campaign aides said he would wait until after the state budget is passed this summer to formally declare his candidacy.

The appearance of foot dragging also caused by an April throat operation that left Wilson unable to speak normally - and thus kept his announcement tentative - has come at an inopportune time for the governor. Even though voters are not yet tuned into the 1996 race, campaign activists and the national political decisionmakers who help build up campaign war chests and win endorsements have been left hanging.

"If he eventually fails in his presidential bid, the history of this will conclude that the fallout from his voice problems did him in more than anything else," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School.

If and when the Wilson campaign gets rolling, the California governor is still expected to be a formidable force.

"Pete Wilson enters the presidential sweepstakes very well positioned," says Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College. "He is an activist governor in an electoral rich state, who is well-positioned on key issues from a formidable position outside Washington in a country that is taking a sharp turn against inside-the-beltway thinking."

A shrewd tactician

Wilson is considered a shrewd tactician, deft at presaging and harnessing the public mood on emerging issues. He has been thumping several of late: welfare reform, crime, immigration, and affirmative action. Because he can point to a record on such issues while at the helm of the state that carries 20 percent of the electoral votes needed for the presidency, he is one of the GOP contenders the White House is watching most.

"Unlike Dole, Gramm, and others, Wilson has a long catalogue of achievements he can call his own," says Rich Zeiger, editor of the California Journal. Among the ones he cites: the first governor to sign a "three-strikes-you're out" law and his spearheading of Propostion 187, aimed at cutting state services to illegal immigrants.

"The perception that there is no Republican running [for President] with a track record that really ignites Republicans is the major thing that encouraged the Wilson people to get in," Mr. Zeiger says.

But his minuses are many, too. This includes a lack of name recognition in the East, criticism for having gone alone with a major tax hike in his first year as governor, and his wooden speaking style. He is also pro-abortion-rights, which endears him to social moderates but angers party conservatives.

"The right wing of the Republican party continues to suspect him going way back to his support of Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan," notes Zeiger. Even though Wilson is now trying to reverse his image with a proposed 15 percent tax cut, Zeiger adds: "No amount of dancing to the right has convinced [rightwingers] he is one of them."

Born in Lake Forest, Ill., and raised in St. Louis, Wilson has a 30-year political career running from the California statehouse to the mayor's office in San Diego to the US Senate, where he became known for fiscal prudence and ardent support of defense.

Considered a moderate on many issues when he assumed the California governship in January 1991, Wilson has moved right in recent months. His four main campaign themes echo much of what Republicans are trying to achieve nationally: job creation, tax cuts, education reform, and criminal justice reform.

Married twice, with two stepsons, Wilson is considered a straight-arrow, middle-America, suburban everyman: backyard chef, piano player, exercise maven, economy shopper. He has helped guide the state through a difficult period - a time of economically devastating freezes, droughts, floods, fires, earthquakes, recession, and riots. He rebounded from the lowest ratings of any governor in state history to trounce Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown in November.

Even with all these strengths, Wilson has found his early going on the national stage difficult.

In April, he became embroiled in "maidgate," the embarrassing charges that his first wife had hired an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper in the late 1970s - undermining his calls for crackdowns on illegals. Later the same month, a vocal chord operation left him hoarse for over a month, cutting into speaking and fundraising trips. His wife Gayle read his words from podiums.

Within the state, there is concern over the potential fallout of turning over his office, under California law, to Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis (D) in the event of a presidential win. The idea is anathema to Republicans in general, and the party's conservative wing in particular, a group once hostile to Wilson that has warmed to him recently.

According to a California poll released in early May, almost two out of three voters believe Wilson can't campaign as a presidential candidate and still do a good job in carrying out responsibilities as governor.

"He is seriously losing his grip on his own party over this issue," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the California poll. "The voters elected Wilson to deal with hard times and don't like the idea of pulling out to run for higher political ambitions."

Perhaps more important, the same poll found that Wilson would not deliver his state in a general election against Clinton.

"That poll was widely reported, noticed, and discussed," says Mr. Schneider. "His entire strength to the Republicans is premised on giving them the state Clinton must have to be reelected. The attitudes reflected by that poll are his biggest problem at the moment."

How will do nationally?

How Wilson's strengths and weaknesses play nationally will tell whether he is still in the presidential game by the time California primary voters can voice their displeasure in March, 1996. According to Wilson strategists, the answer will come after repeated trips to New Hampshire and Iowa where he will stress among other things his proposed California tax cut.

Strategists say privately Wilson must place no worse in those races than third to continue in the race.

"I haven't seen him discuss any issues that have specific relevance to Iowa and New Hampshire," says Larry Berg, director of the Jesse Unruh Center for Politics at the University of Southern California. "He's got to focus on something that is both key to voters in those states and elsewhere."

According to George Gorton, Wilson's political consultant for 24 years, who is now completing fundraisers to pay off $1.5 million in debt, 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. A March primary instead of June that year also advances California further into the momentum stage in choosing nominees. "[Hosting the convention] puts the decision-making process in Wilson's home territory," Mr. Heslop says.

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