AS he steps to the podium Jan. 5 for his fourth - and perhaps final - state-of-the-state address, California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) knows he is beginning the fight of his political life.
Facing a Democratic challenge next November, most likely from State Treasurer Kathleen Brown (D), Mr. Wilson must do more than tally the pluses and minuses of the past year, package them with a positive spin, and enjoin legislative cooperation. He must divorce his image completely from what he has called a three year ``litany of Biblical plagues'' - drought, freezing weather, fires, earthquakes, and riots - and lay out an electorate-stirring agenda that will carry him to reelection.
``It's an election year, and we can expect a political speech in which he tells everyone how times have been tough and how he's been the best steward possible,'' says Richard Zeiger, editor of the California Journal, a Sacramento-based political magazine. ``He will thump on the stuff he feels he has done well and hope things get better by November.''
Besides the ``litany of plagues,'' California has been roughing it through the state's longest, deepest recession since the 1930s. Equally historic have been the state's worst-of-the-century real estate drop-off, and a four-year job loss hovering between 600,000 to 800,000, thanks in large part to a shrinking aerospace and defense industry.
Wilson is expected to underline how such conditions were not of his creating and to argue that 1993 legislation has helped reverse a business exodus exacerbated by too much bureaucracy, taxes, and red tape. Reform of the state's fraud-ridden workmen's compensation laws, which passed last spring, and several bills easing business regulations - which passed in late summer - are successes Wilson is expected to claim. Though his approval ratings inched upwards after a get-tough campaign to halt illegal immigration, Wilson's poll figures have sunk back to the worst levels of any modern governor.
Still, some political experts say that Wilson's political fortunes are about to change.
``California Gov. Pete Wilson will be the comeback kid of 1994,'' predicts Fred Barnes, a conservative, nationally syndicated columnist and political commentator. ``And he will position himself favorably for a White House run in 1996.''
Noting that Wilson has been a California mayor (San Diego), United States senator, and governor, others say the incumbent governor is the only one with the recognition factor and enough political machinery in place to win the election.
``Neither Wilson's current political situation nor this speech will change his past 20 years of service - he is a very savvy and tough campaigner,'' says Larry Berg, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. ``Any Democrat who thinks this will be a cakewalk is in a dream world. The battle will be lean, mean, and expensive.''
Ms. Brown, Wilson's Democratic opponent, has been turning up the heat in recent weeks with her own ideas on crime, immigration, and the state economy, the issues most pundits say will be the focus of the election. And Wilson has already been responding in kind.
Last week, for instance, the governor called for a special legislative session to examine several anti-crime measures, including three bills calling for life-without-parole for felons. The action came on the heels of a 33-point crime program outlined the week before by Brown. Wilson also said he would hold a crime summit Jan. 19 and 20 in Hollywood.
``Crime, crime, and crime - those will be the main issues of his [state-of-the-state] speech and the coming election,'' says Joe Cerrell, a Los Angeles-based Democratic political consultant. ``It's a very important speech. Democrats from Congress to Sacramento will have their pencils out.''
Speech-watchers will be looking for clues on how Wilson expects to fund any new anti-crime legislation. The state is coming off three of the largest state deficits in American history, and Wilson's current state budget is expected to be $3 billion to $4 billion in the red by June. When Wilson went against campaign promises by raising taxes in his first year here, his political fortunes fell dramatically and have never recovered.
``It's clear Wilson wants to be rabid on crime. The question is: Where is he going to get the money to pay for it?'' says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. One source, say Ms. Jeffe and others, is federal compensation due the state for immigration laws that have hit California heavily as the nation's most immigrant-populous state.
But those funds, which range between $700,000,000 and $1 billion, are not expected to be enough in the long term.
At a press conference last week, Wilson acknowledged that his proposals would be expensive, probably hundreds of millions of dollars annually in a justice system that is already the fastest-growing state program.
Declaring that California ``has become a dangerous place,'' Wilson asked: ``Is adequate public safety an expensive proposition? The answer is `Yes.' But it is not nearly as expensive as failing to provide it.''
A recent Field Poll showed that crime was the No. 1 concern among Californians.