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Short of a Major Miracle, Can Wilson Win in 1994? : Election: Although the governor's popularity is in the cellar, he has scored budget points. But his right thunders and his loyal supporters stew.

June 27, 1993|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Policy at Claremont Graduate School.

Here are the top 10 ways Gov. Pete Wilson can win reelection in 1994 (with apologies to David Letterman):

10. Run against Edmund G. (Jer ry) Brown Jr., not Kathleen Brown.

9. Run against Willie Brown, not Kathleen Brown.

8. Blame California's economic woes on President Bill Clinton and the Democrats.

7. Blame California's economic woes on Clinton and the Democrats and make voters believe it.

6. Find a base of support.

5. Persuade voters you have the plan to turn the economy around.

4. Turn the economy around.

3. Turn the economy around fast enough for voters to notice it's turned.

2. Persuade Californians that "change" means getting rid of everybody else.

1. Run unopposed.

Well, it is still 11 months until the gubernatorial primary and 16 months until the 1994 general election, and in today's fast-forward political climate, anything can--and probably will--happen. But polls and economic indicators show Wilson in deep electoral trouble. His job-approval rating is the lowest of any California governor in 30 years.

Is his public-opinion meltdown irreversible? Will his handling of this year's budget make a difference?

The simple explanation for the governor's nose dive is that he had a run of bad luck. And he leveraged it.

The disasters that have dogged Wilson since he took office in 1991--drought, floods, fires, earthquakes, recession and riots--are all-too familiar. Wilson certainly can't be blamed for natural disasters. Nor are California's economic woes simply his fault. But that's not the point.

Disasters must be dealt with--decisively. That's what leaders do. Voters, quite rightly, rate politicians on how they deal with such challenges. Judgment becomes a matter of perception, personality and communication. All three have combined to compound Wilson's problems.

Wilson is fighting the voters' negative perception of the way things are unfolding. According to a Times poll taken earlier this year, 72% thought things in California were "seriously off on the wrong track." Numbers like that make an incumbent's reelection difficult.

Personality can help here. Voters are more likely to accept bad news if they like and believe the messenger and if the messenger offers them hope. Wilson frequently comes off as stubborn and sour.

Selling has not been his administration's strong suit, either. As Assembly Speaker Willie Brown put it during this year's budget debate, "The governor has a marketing problem."

The fault has not always been Wilson's. The pitch for his pro-active, first-year agenda was drowned out early on by the tumult surrounding the Gulf War and by assorted state crises.

Sometimes, however, Wilson's messages have been mixed--as on taxes and gay rights. Sometimes, communication has broken down completely--as in last year's budget stalemate between Wilson and the Assembly, led by an equally petulant Brown.

Enacting this year's budget by July 1 could offer Wilson some short-term gain. In the wake of the 1992 election, to defy voter anger triggered by Sacramento gridlock wounds everybody in the Capitol. Nonetheless, the operative question in electoral politics is "What have you done for me lately ?" The governor and Legislature have to deal with the fallout from this year's budget, and next year will have to to go through the hurtful process all over again in an election season.

And Wilson should have learned by now to be wary of Democratic Assembly speakers bearing timely budget settlements. After compromising early and lobbying hard to pass a spending plan the governor could live with, Brown told everyone, "It is Pete Wilson's budget."

Was Brown's cooperation a maneuver to position Wilson to take the fall for the inevitable pain of budget cuts? To leave the governor holding the bag if the half-cent sales-tax extension is defeated in November? Or if a shortfall in projected revenues collapses this year's budgetary house of cards?

Despite his compromise on extending the temporary sales tax, Wilson angered business groups, among his most important sources of political and financial support, by initially and rigidly opposing the idea. And this tough-on-crime Republican alienated another natural constituency--the law-enforcement community--with his demand that $2.6 billion in property-tax revenue be shifted from local government services to the schools.

If that weren't enough, fellow Republicans appear ready to hang the governor out to dry. A recent Field poll showed that "two-thirds of all Republicans polled (66%) feel that it would be a good thing for the GOP if one or more Republicans decided to challenge Wilson in next year's gubernatorial primary."

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