Dole Tries On Gov. Wilson's Message, but Will It Wear?

SAN Francisco Bay glitters in the morning sun. The yellow cement walls of historic San Quentin prison loom in the background, while families of the victims of murderers awaiting execution sit in folding lawn chairs.

''We've become hostage to the vicious acts of nameless, faceless strangers,'' Sen. Bob Dole declares. He vows to stop ''liberals'' who let criminals linger in their cells without finally facing their death sentences.

On stage, California Gov. Pete Wilson looks on like a proud father. From the photo-perfect setting to the hard-hitting anticrime message, this is vintage campaigning, Wilson-style.

All three days of Senator Dole's campaign here leading up to today's primary have been a series of such sets - all very familiar to those who have followed Governor Wilson's career. ''It's not a Dole script - it's a Wilson script,'' says a Republican party insider.

As much as any campaign in recent times, Dole's has stood on the stature and organization of the nation's Republican governors. The strategy served him well against his GOP rivals, but it will undergo the ultimate test in California, where President Clinton has a strong showing in the polls. The Golden State is one that Dole needs to win the fall election, but unlike in states such as Michigan or Texas where the governors are popular, the clout of Wilson's support is less certain.

The California governor's own ratings in California are so low that he appears to drag Dole down more than lift him up. ''Pete causes people to vote against the ticket, not for the ticket,'' says the Republican insider.

The poll numbers back up this charge. In separate polls released last week by the Los Angeles Times and the Field Poll, the addition of Wilson as a vice presidential nominee actually had a negative impact on Dole's chances in California. The Field Poll found that Wilson did not even help Dole's appeal among Republicans and conservatives. Wilson's rival from the conservative wing of the Republican Party here, Attorney General Dan Lungren, is mentioned more frequently as a possible vice presidential candidate.

Defenders of the governor dismiss this as the residue of Wilson's failed bid for the Republican nomination for president and the deep economic recession in this state, which only began turning around last year. ''Pete's coming back in his poll numbers, so he would be an asset to the ticket in the fall,'' says Republican consultant Sal Russo.

Wilson also brings an experienced organization and infrastructure to the Dole campaign, say analysts here. He has successfully run for a variety of offices, from mayor of San Diego to the US Senate, and now two terms as governor.

''What I bring is the experience of someone who has been fighting for his state with this administration for all the time they have been in office, and can document their derelictions,'' Wilson told the Monitor in an interview last week. ''And someone who spent eight years in the US Senate with Bob Dole, for whom I have great respect and affection.''

While no one would describe him as charismatic, Wilson is adept at running campaigns in California. There, candidates must use television effectively, and Wilson is skilled at shaping a made-for-TV message. He proved his skill in that regard by using opposition to illegal immigration and a tough anticrime stance as powerful weapons in overcoming a huge deficit in the polls to win reelection in 1994.

The Dole campaign events here carefully followed that formula. At each event, Wilson spoke first - often longer than Dole did - setting out a California-tinted message. At a B-2 bomber plant, the two blamed defense-spending cuts for triggering the state's deep recession. At a farm in the Central Valley, they attacked environmental regulation. And at a rally in conservative Orange County, Dole backed a Wilson-favored initiative on the fall ballot to end affirmative-action programs.

Wilson unabashedly acknowledges his role in defining the themes of Dole's campaign here and defends the use of his television-friendly method.

''It's perfectly legitimate to try to showcase your candidate,'' Wilson said. ''Photo ops are a part of this business. They are a part of the symbolism of reinforcing whatever substantive message you have with a visual reinforcement. That's legitimate if it's honest.''

But some Republicans were critical of the choice of Dole events, particularly the somewhat macabre visit to San Quentin's gas chamber and the fervent embrace of the death penalty. They suggest that Wilson is using Dole's campaign to validate his own issues. ''San Quentin is not a Dole place,'' says the Republican insider.

EVEN Wilson backers acknowledge that this campaign may be more of a benefit at this point to the governor than to Dole. ''It helps create the perception that Wilson's back in charge of California again,'' says Mr. Russo.

Wilson has been digging himself out of a political hole in this state ever since he decided to run for the presidency despite a pledge not to do so when he ran for reelection. In conversations with Republican stalwarts at the Dole rally in the Central Valley, even Wilson backers complain about that ill-fated bid for the White House. ''He said he was not going to run for president and he did,'' says Fresno school superintendent George Keledjian. ''A lot of people were disappointed. But that's behind him now.''

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