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THE CAMPAIGN FOR GOVERNOR : ROBOPOL : Nobody Runs--or Works--Harder than Pete Wilson. But Can He Ever Win the Hearts of Californians?

May 13, 1990|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a Times national correspondent. Times researchers Doug Conner and Scott Fischer also contributed to this story

ON A COLD February morning in San Diego, a slim blond man wearing a suit as gray as the weather stands behind a podium outside City Hall. Around him bustle younger men carrying folders and boxes stuffed with papers. Blue and white balloons rise from the podium and quiver in the stiff breeze. Reporters stand on the edge of the square with notebooks poised.

For Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, the man behind the microphone, this is in many respects a triumphant homecoming. On the third official day of his campaign for the governorship of California--a job he has coveted for more than a decade--he has returned to the city that he led as mayor from 1971 through 1982. All around him are reminders of his achievements over that long reign. New office buildings spike into the skyline. Local officials mill behind him deferentially.

All that is missing this morning is an audience.

Not more than a dozen people, including reporters, are listening as Wilson begins his speech. There are more police officers than spectators present. Trolleys run by; people step off, look for a moment at the podium, slow their step and then pass on. One man in a wheelchair looks quizzically at the balloons, the amplifier and the police and asks, "Is that Pete Wilson?" Then he rolls away without waiting for an answer.

If Wilson notices that he is speaking to an empty courtyard, he betrays no sign of it. He does not vary his delivery. No disappointment colors his voice. The subject for the morning is transportation, and Wilson sticks to it as stubbornly as if he were before a room of rapt highway engineers.

His remarks are reasonable, well-informed and entirely unarresting. Here in this empty courtyard a continent away from the capital, Wilson sounds as though he is still on the Senate floor. His is the cool and insular language of government, of official declarations and distant decisions.

This is Pete Wilson's natural vernacular, for he is, above all, a creature of government. Except for a brief period as a young lawyer 25 years ago, Wilson has spent his entire adult life in politics--as a local Republican operative in San Diego, state assemblyman, mayor of San Diego and, since 1982, as a U.S. Senator.

That resume marks Pete Wilson as a pioneer among the new generation of career politicians who have come to dominate American public life during the era of the permanent campaign--the unflappable, technocratic young men so common in Congress and state houses today. In Wilson are evident all of this generation's characteristic strengths. He is efficient at moving the levers of government, comfortable before the television camera, conversant with campaign media strategy, prodigiously successful at raising money. Extremely sensitive to the political center of gravity, he is difficult to box into an ideological corner and disciplined enough to avoid the mistakes that in this day of 30-second negative advertisements can end a political career overnight. With a loyal and efficient staff around him, he is the skilled and savvy manager of a diversified bicoastal enterprise: the political career of Peter Barton Wilson.

But if Wilson possesses all the skills of the modern politician, he shares the breed's great weaknesses. Like so many of his contemporaries, Wilson has enormous difficulty capturing the voters' imagination with bold initiatives or forging emotional bonds with his constituents, a point painfully dramatized in his adopted home town by the steady flow of people who push by him indifferently on this winter morning.

THERE IN MICROCOSM is the dilemma Pete Wilson faces as he begins his campaign for the state's highest political office. After two decades in elected office, Wilson remains for many Californians an indistinct figure, a name on a ballot but little more, a blond blur. "People have intellectual knowledge of him," says one California Republican political consultant, "but they don't have emotional knowledge. You can't win the governor's race without both."

Pete Wilson begins this campaign with formidable assets. While Attorney General John K. Van de Kamp and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein flay each other with negative advertisements, Wilson has no opposition for the Republican nomination. Though some conservatives carp about his support for a woman's right to abortion and his tolerant views toward homosexuality, Wilson has behind him an enthusiastic party desperate to maintain control of the governor's mansion during the redrawing of state legislative and congressional districts that will follow this year's census. He is stockpiling one of the largest campaign treasuries ever accumulated in California.

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