WASHINGTON — Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater said Wednesday that next year's California gubernatorial campaign will be the "No. 1 race" in the country because of its potential impact on the nationwide struggle for reapportionment of congressional seats.
As things stand in the competition for the seat, Republican Gov. George Deukmejian will vacate after two terms and U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson is all but assured the Republican nomination. Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp is the likely Democratic standard bearer, although ex-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein is also given a chance for the nomination.
"The point is that reapportionment is our No. 1 national goal," Atwater told a Times Washington Bureau breakfast. "I can go to Indiana or South Carolina or anywhere else and say our No. 1 national race in the country is the Pete Wilson race because the governorship of California has more than any other single thing to do with the national reapportionment than anything I can think of."
Republicans see the redrafting of congressional district lines after the 1990 census as a critical opportunity for gaining ground in the House, which they have not controlled since 1954. The biggest change will take place in California, which is expected to add five or six seats to its present contingent of 45.
Republicans are still smarting from the post-1980 Democratic reapportionment in the state, which they claim cost them four or five seats. At that time, Democrats controlled the governorship as well as both houses of the Legislature. The GOP is hoping to avoid a similar debacle after the 1990 census by electing a Republican to replace Deukmejian.
Atwater said that California also could have an important role in the 1992 presidential election if legislation to move its June presidential primary to March is revived in the Legislature next year.
"I think California is not a player in the process now," he said. "But if this bill passes, then California will go from being a non-player to the absolute critical player in the process and it will absolutely change the way the whole game is played."
He said that he is uncertain about the long-term impact of the abortion issue on Republican strength. In two current gubernatorial races, in New Jersey and Virginia, two Republican contenders are being hurt by their opposition to abortion. Attention to the issue at the state level increased after the Supreme Court in June opened the door for states to restrict abortions.
But Atwater contended: "I think that you'll have to look state by state to see how this issue is going to play out. I do not think it will be a driving national issue in the 1990 campaign, particularly, and I certainly do not think it will be a driving issue in the 1992 campaign."
Meanwhile, on another social issue front, Atwater disclosed an apparent widening in the rift between him and Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) over the party's stance on gay political clubs. Atwater said that he had turned down Dannemeyer's request to publicly repudiate the party's giving charters to such groups.
Dannemeyer, who for years has campaigned against homosexuality, had asked Atwater to come out against chartering of gay GOP organizations after a state party convention rejected a Dannemeyer resolution on the issue.
"I am for civil rights and civil liberties for everyone, period," Atwater said. "So I simply was not prepared to acknowledge in a letter to the congressman that question (about party sponsorship of gay political groups) one way or the other."
Atwater, who talked optimistically about Republican efforts to win increased support from blacks, was asked if those efforts were not contradicted by the emphasis President Bush placed on the case of paroled convict Willie Horton, a black, during the 1988 campaign.
"I, to this day, will not acknowledge that the Willie Horton matter had anything at all to do with race," said Atwater who was Bush's campaign manager. "When I heard about Willie Horton, I didn't know the guy was black," he said. " I didn't even know his name."