Wilson Makes Debut, Again

California governor starts slow, but has found voice

USING the Statue of Liberty as his most recent ''prop,'' Republican Gov. Pete Wilson of California yesterday officially kicked off his presidential campaign. Battery Park, which looks out on Ellis Island, was either an ideal or ironic backdrop, depending on your point of view, for a governor whose campaign themes include an end to illegal immigration. While the governor launched his campaign, protestors behind barricades heckled him about his stand on immigration and affirmative action. ''We are utterly offended,'' says Ursula Levelt, policy director of the Center for Immigration Rights, Inc., a New York advocacy group. The organized heckling may not even be necessary. Wilson's candidacy was sidetracked after he lost his voice and became mired in a long California budget battle in July. As a result, he shows up in only single digits in national polls. His fund-raising efforts are way behind schedule. And his only major political ally so far is Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R). Even with his political baggage and late start, some political observers have not written Wilson off. ''He's a Christie Whitman with trousers,'' says Jay Severin, a Republican consultant, based in New York. Conservative Republicans are eager for a candidate who can beat Clinton and will take ''win ability'' into account, he says. ''In the case of Christie Whitman, Republicans placed winning over ideology. Pete Wilson would be very strong in the general election,'' says Mr. Severin, who notes that Wilson comes from the nation's largest state with nearly 20 percent of the electoral votes needed to win. Conservatives, in fact, may be reassessing the chances of Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas after his difficulties in the Iowa straw poll. This might help Wilson as well. ''Wilson is still the most plausible non-Washington candidate,'' says Samuel Popkin, a Democratic strategist who teaches political science at the University of California at San Diego. In order for Wilson to get the Republican nomination, Mr. Popkin says, Senator Dole and Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas ''would have to cover each other with Washington ooze.'' At Battery Park, Wilson for the most part ignored the protestors and emphasized his campaign themes, including his own welfare reforms and budget cuts in the Golden State. And he tried to differentiate himself from the other candidates: ''They talk. As governor, I've acted.'' In a year of high voter cynicism, Wilson eschewed endorsements from politicians. Instead he was introduced by Gen. P.X. Kelly, former commandant of the US Marine Corps. And Wilson seemed to have imported into the Big Apple a considerable contingent of blonde, healthy-looking Californians. Along with this sunny entourage, Wilson also came with built-in political opposition. Before Wilson's announcement at Battery Park, Bill Press, the chair of the California Democratic Party, held a ''real'' Pete Wilson news conference. Calling Wilson the ''Chameleon Candidate,'' Mr. Press said the Democrats came to New York to tell New Yorkers ''the truth'' about Wilson. Referring to Wilson's sponsorship of immigration legislation in the US Congress, Press said ''Pete Wilson is the father of illegal immigration - and any DNA test will prove it - even if taken in the county of Los Angeles.'' Another potential plus for Wilson is his ability to use television effectively. With the primary season shortened to about 30 days, effective television campaigns will be crucial. ''Pete Wilson has a history of developing and driving a message on TV,'' says Sal Russo, a Republican political consultant with Russo, Marsh & Raper. In fact because Wilson's strength is the electronic media, Mr. Russo does not expect the California governor to do well in the New Hampshire or Iowa primaries. ''Wilson has not had much success at retail politics,'' he says. Instead, Wilson concentrates on issues with an emotional impact, such as immigration and affirmative action. ''He stresses that it's not fair for people to take advantage of the system, that we are a nation of laws,'' Russo says.

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