Wilson Tries On Two Hats, But Many Criticize the Fit

California budget stalls as governor makes his '96 presidential bid

CAN a sitting governor make a successful run for president and competently run his state at the same time?

It's not likely - and certainly not easy - if California Gov. Pete Wilson is any indication.

As a presidential hopeful, Governor Wilson has begun exiting the state capital with regularity, the list of problems left unattended in California keeps growing.

While he jets off to New Hampshire, Florida, Iowa, and Colorado, the state's two largest counties are in fiscal emergency; the state Assembly - with a new Speaker and many first-time legislators - is in greater disarray than anytime in three decades; and the $65 billion state budget is nearly three weeks past its constitutional deadline.

"The state is awash in troubles and it needs [Wilson's] full attention and time," says Rich Zeiger, editor of the California Journal. Noting that a state budget requires two-thirds approval of both houses, Mr. Zeiger adds: "The chief executive is crucial to dealmaking - he's just too big a part of the system to be gone."

California - the most populous state in the country, with the world's seventh-largest economy - provides a prime example of the challenges a sitting governor faces when making a bid for the White House.

With this as a backdrop, Wilson's lieutenant governor has been issuing public pleas for the governor's return. In a press conference earlier this month, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis personally urged that Wilson "curtail [his] out-of-state campaign travel and stay in California until a new state budget is negotiated."

But Wilson's campaign chief, Dan Schnur, says Mr. Davis's concern is little more than politick-ing. He defends his boss by tallying up the number of days Wilson has worked this year (117) compared with his legislative counterparts (senators: 98; assemblymen: 100). "We are saying state business always comes first," Mr. Schnur says. "When he is required in Sacramento, that's where he will be."

After trips from New Hampshire to Iowa, Wilson returned to Sacramento earlier this month to propose a budget that is still pending approval by the legislature. Coming home to put out the budget fire may mean that he forfeited valuable momentum in the crucial, early primary states.

"By flying home, Wilson had to miss the most important conservative meeting of the century in New Hampshire," says Samuel Popkin, political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "He's in trouble because he was gone at the most important juncture of the campaign."

IN part, all sitting politicians have to juggle office and campaign business. Front-runner Bob Dole of Kansas has a conservative revolution to tend in Washington. As majority leader, he must battle opponents such as Texas's Sen. Phil Gramm, who wants to take credit for such deeds as the defeated nomination of Henry Foster for surgeon general. And the geographical proximity of New England to Washington gives Senator Dole an edge.

"Wilson did very well in a quick stop here," says Sally Novetzke, a Republican organizer in Des Moines. "There are loads of people here looking for alternatives to Dole ... but I need a candidate to show them...."

Bruce Benson, former state Republican Party chief in Colorado, says Wilson has plenty of time to make a good impression in his state. After hosting a May strategy session for 55 top state activists, Mr. Benson says Wilson won 40 converts. "People like that Pete Wilson has a record of doing what other folks have just talked about," he says. "People like him if they can just meet him."

The controversy surrounding Wilson's absences can in part be attributed to a state law that says when the California governor leaves state airspace, the lieutenant governor becomes acting governor with full powers. In the 1970s, Lt. Gov. Mike Curb played spoiler against Jerry Brown, appointing judges, vetoing legislation, and even holding special hearings, while the candidate campaigned out of state.

But so far, observers here say Lieutenant Governor Davis has toed the line, partly out of political ambitions of his own. Should Wilson win national office, Davis becomes governor.

"Davis is in the crazy position of both being a Democrat who is supposed to do everything he can to annoy Wilson - but also a politician who benefits if Wilson does well," Mr. Popkin says.

So far this year, Davis has had between 59 and 68 chances to fill in for Wilson (the count varies depending on whether Wilson was out of state for a full or partial day.) Those figures explain why a significant majority of state voters are angry with Wilson for reneging on his 1994 gubernatorial-race promise not to run for president. And, by wide margins, Wilson at this point would beat neither Dole in a primary here nor Clinton in a general election.

But Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College in California, thinks the state political climate is warming to Wilson: "The legislature is moving, however glacially, toward the Republican side," Mr. Heslop says, "and the major issues that are stirring the state are stirring the nation: crime, immigration, affirmative action."

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