California Rebound May Bounce Wilson Into White House Bid

'Pistol" Pete Wilson, the Republican California governor who misfired woefully in his shot at the White House in 1996, has his gun back in the holster.

He has been called one of America's most enduring and least endearing politicians, a Pentium-brain technocrat with both the get-it-done ability - and the persona - of a good mop.

Now, after guiding the nation's most populous and diverse state through a litany of natural and social disasters - including its deepest recession this century - Governor Wilson is rebounding as high as the Golden State economy. A record-holder as least-popular governor in American history, he is enjoying his highest ratings within the state since entering office in 1991. And they are going up.

Analysts both inside and out of the state say the rebound is significant for two reasons.

No. 1, ratings figures are being translated into speculation that Mr. Wilson may toss his hat into White House Race 2000 and be a far more serious contender.

If so, his candidacy would come after he leaves office in early 1999, eliminating some of the limitations that beset his first campaign. That highly publicized flop, which lasted only 32 days in 1996, was hampered by his having to campaign while in office.

Wilson also was severely criticized for reneging on a promise to California voters not to run for president while governor. And he had no stunning economic turnaround to point to as his legacy.

"If Wilson runs in 2000, he won't be able to claim total credit for California's spectacular economic turnaround," says A.G. Block, editor of the California Journal. "But he deserves a lot of the credit for a host of legislative and other initiatives that dramatically helped reverse the slide of the business community here."

Reason 2 for why the California-Wilson comeback is important: At a time when the national Republican party is trying to regroup and define its vision, the reversal underscores Wilson's ability to tap into social issues important to a disgruntled middle class. The list includes propositions against illegal immigration, affirmative action, and bilingual education, as well as reforms in welfare, education, crime, and reinvented government.

"He is one of the few Republicans to have found a post-cold-war agenda that has a chance of building the kind of coalition that can win a national majority," says Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute of Government at Claremont McKenna College.

On the presidential-candidacy front, many analysts note that Wilson recently scolded fellow Republicans at a Western Republican Leadership Conference in Reno, Nev., for lack of political initiative that could regain the White House.

"Rather than pressing a Republican agenda for change, many clearly prefer a holding pattern," Wilson said. "Republican ideas are defining California's future and ... the change that has swept across my state will sweep across this country in the not-too-distant future,"

Wilson also called for a "personal responsibility plank" to replace Republican Party calls for a "human-life amendment" to the US Constitution, currently a part of the GOP platform. The idea, which would encourage behavior that "will not produce unwanted pregnancies" is being seen as a move to soften his pro-choice stance, which has long angered conservative Republicans.

"All of the energies, and plans and strategies of Pete Wilson for the short-term past and foreseeable future are being geared not only to insure his legacy but to create a run for the White House," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. "His recent speeches in Reno and elsewhere are telegraphing that he definitely intends to be a viable presidential candidate."

However the final years of his governance play out, Wilson seems destined to be a Republican force to contend with from state elections to Congress, analysts say. The Wilson story, in this view, is also a valuable object lesson for other states.

"If you are a congressman or a legislator in New York, Chicago, or Miami, and you want to know what public police reforms are going to be taking place in your state or community tomorrow, you look to California today," says Dan Schnur, a former Wilson aide, now political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Currently, Wilson is backing a citizens' initiative to eliminate the state's bilingual education and a ballot measure that would weaken labor's political influence. It would require a worker's annual written permission before unions spend dues on political contributions.

However far such ideas go, many voters in other states do not necessarily tie them with Wilson. Although he was a two-term mayor of San Diego, a two-term US senator, and is now a two-term governor, Wilson is still often called the "most powerful, unknown politician in America."

"Wilson will have a lot of work to do in putting his face on a nationwide candidacy," says William Schneider, of the American Enterprise Institute. "Right now, he is on nobody's radar."

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