As the Democrats see it, Californians are growing tired and fearful of the defense build-up. And the Democrats sense public doubts deepening about President Reagan's nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court.
Fighting back, Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, dog tired from a long week in the Congress and a red-eye midnight flight home to California on Saturday, gamely expressed his eagerness to meet the Democrats on both fronts in his upcoming reelection campaign.
"Let them come," Wilson told about 800 delegates to the state Republican Party convention in Anaheim.
The first-term senator, who is up for reelection next year, characterized military spending as more than a matter of national defense--indeed, a bread-and-butter jobs issue for Californians. And Wilson said he genuinely relishes the chance to match his support for Bork against the ghost of Democratic support for California ex-Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.
The three-day party convention also heard from Gov. George Deukmejian on the importance of not allowing Democrats to monopolize the high ground on education. "I think the party in the past has been very, very supportive (of schools) but perhaps we have not articulated it as often and as vigorously as we should have," Deukmejian said.
Only casual interest surfaced at the convention for the most consequential matter of GOP politics in the country, the election of a new president. Among the GOP presidential candidates, only Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) accepted an invitation to speak to the convention. Other candidates, even some who first said they would come, deemed it an unnecessary event presumably because California's June 7, 1988, primary is at the very end of the election process.
Various party officials said they were more interested in discussing the just-concluded session of the state Legislature and pending ballot initiative drives to try to reduce the influence of special interest money on legislative elections.
Other party activities included the announcement of an Iranian-American Republican task force to try to recruit members from among California's community of Iranian expatriates that numbers up to 500,000, according to GOP estimates. The 30 or so Iranian-Americans at the convention constituted one of the largest ethnic blocs in attendance. The members are strongly opposed to the revolutionary government of Tehran.
Wilson, in preparing for his reelection, has tried to draw an image as an independent-minded Republican. He has reached out to moderates with his stands on environmental conservation and freedom of choice on abortion; at the same time appealing to conservatives with a hard-line, spare-no-cost defense policy.
Potential Democratic opponents, led by Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, have begun trying to undermine Wilson's appeal to moderates, criticizing his support for free spending on defense and his backing of Bork.
"My would-be opponents have declared that Judge Bork's nomination will be a major issue between us. . . . I say bring them on. I welcome their challenge. I will be delighted to match my record on crime, law enforcement and the judiciary against all comers," Wilson told the convention.
At the Bork confirmation hearings in Washington, the focus has been on the nominee's views on constitutional principles, chiefly privacy and civil rights. But Wilson would recast the Bork debate as an old-fashioned liberal versus conservative campaign test of candidate views on the hot-button issues of crime, the death penalty and, hottest button of all, ex-Chief Justice Bird.
Bird was ousted from the state Supreme Court last November by a nearly 2-1 public vote. Wilson opposed her and McCarthy supported her.
Although stumbling through his speech on only a few hours sleep, Wilson strived to be equally as feisty on military spending. He demanded Democrats be specific about which defense programs they would cut and which bases they would close.
"Which communities would they disrupt? I tell you I am proud that some 600,000 new jobs . . . have flown from actions and votes I have taken as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, 600,000 new jobs for California!" Wilson exclaimed.
"I challenge those who want to attack that record--whose jobs will you sacrifice as you seek to undermine our national security?"
Dole, arriving late Saturday after an earlier appearance at a state GOP convention in Minnesota, told reporters that the new 1988 campaign interest on character issues is adding pressure to his candidacy.
He acknowledged that his biting wit has sometimes led him into trouble and that he is trying to hold back.
"If I win I'm going to write a book on all those things I wanted to say and didn't," he joked.
Then, as if to display that he was holding back only so far, he offered an entertaining series of one-liners in response to questions.
About Vice President George Bush: "The Vice President has done a good job as Vice President and I think he is somewhere today."
About maintaining Reagan Administration proposals to expand offshore oil drilling: First, a long pause. Then: "I know the question. I just don't know the answer."
About switching places with his wife, former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole. Would he quit his job to help her like she did to help him: "I could say, yes, and you'd never know the difference . . . I don't know; I think about that."