California May Shade Wilson's Day in Sun

FOR now, he basks in the spotlight as the Hamlet of Presidential Drama 1996.

But as California Gov. Pete Wilson prepares to end speculation of a candidacy ''to be or not to be'' -- he is expected to announce a presidential exploratory committee as early as tomorrow -- shadows loom large as well.

''There is very serious opposition within the state [to his candidacy]'' says a prominent GOP strategist commenting on condition of anonymity. ''It would be fair to say that most elected Republican officials and certainly the grass roots do not want their governor running for president.''

Indeed, many national observers already treat a Wilson candidacy as a given. They see it as a threat to front-runners Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. The threat is based partly on the premise that he could win the state primary and bring the largest single block of votes to the 1996 GOP convention in San Diego.

But two major statewide polls indicate that such a delivery may be several stamps short of a postmark. Perhaps most sobering is a recent Field Poll in which Senator Dole, not Governor Wilson, is the clear front-runner among state Republicans. Dole garners 48 percent -- more than double Wilson's 22 percent. Senator Gramm captures 11 percent.

Further, a recent Los Angeles Times poll found that almost two-thirds of California voters, including 59 percent of Republicans, think Wilson should not run. In a hypothetical matchup with President Clinton, Wilson loses his own state by a substantial margin, 51 percent to 42 percent.

''Wilson does much better here [in California] than in other states,'' says Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. ''But despite his highest approval ratings in years, Wilson trails Dole significantly at the moment.''

Seasoned observers hasten to note that early poll figures are likely to change once a prospective candidate's hat is thrown into the ring. The interim step of an exploratory committee would allow Californians and others to warm to the idea.

''As Californians begin to weigh the consequences of having one of their own in the White House, they will overcome their opposition and Wilson will do quite well,'' says Sal Russo, a Sacramento, Calif.-based GOP strategist.

The notion of bad poll ratings is not new to Wilson, who had the worst ratings of any governor in US history before soundly defeating State Treasurer Kathleen Brown in November.

''Once you've been down by 23 points to Kathleen Brown, and go on to trounce her by 15 percent, you don't put much stock in early polls,'' says Dan Schnur, Wilson's former press secretary.

But for now, state newspapers are peppered with articles such as ''Pete's Pickle.'' How, they ask, can Wilson both effectively run America's largest state while campaigning across the country and raising $20 million-plus needed to be a viable candidate?

Key politicians are breaking silence to voice their criticisms as well. State Attorney General Dan Lungren (R) recently stated publicly that Wilson should not run. And at least 20 key GOP lawmakers -- 16 senators and 14 assemblymen -- are endorsing Mr. Gramm.

Much of the opposition is based on a law that would give Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat and former chief of staff to Gov. Edmund (Jerry) Brown, the governorship if Wilson vacated. Besides handing the reins over to the opposition party at a time when the Republicans are gaining in the state legislature, it would mean sacrificing appointments to state courts.

''To give up the position of governor ... to allow somebody like Gray Davis [to make legal appointments] is something I can barely tolerate,'' Mr. Lungren says.

Beyond alienating some Republican leaders, talk of a Wilson candidacy has angered many rank and file voters.

''The voters were promised an unstinting, full-term effort to get California turned around ... in the face of national and global competition,'' says Laurie Barlow, a nonpartisan resident of South Pasadena who voted for Wilson in November.

Vowing to change her registration to the Republican Party and then vote for any Republican on the ticket other than Wilson, Barlow says: ''If the Wilson campaign lackeys think that I will allow my vote to be trashed for political expediency, they are badly mistaken.''

Two legislative maneuvers in the works may ease the way for Wilson. One is an initiative calling for a special gubernatorial election rather than automatic succession, and the other is a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the lieutenant governorship from succession.

One or the other could be on the California ballot in either March or November of 1996. ''Just having them on the agenda gives many people a level of comfort,'' says Mr. Russo. ''They know they can vote for Wilson [for president] without knowingly giving the state over to Davis.''

One additional land mine in Wilson's path to the presidency is the dramatic bankruptcy situation in Orange County, long a bastion of Republican support in California. Pollsters say that if the crisis is not solved this year, Wilson may reap some of the blame.

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