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Wilson May Be the Issue at GOP Gathering in O.C.


ANAHEIM — For once, Republicans gathering here this week for their fall convention are not scheduled to hear the battles over gay rights and abortion that have typically dominated past GOP meetings.

Part of the lesson the GOP learned when the party fared poorly in last year's election is that such internal fights over emotionally charged social issues often help the Democrats.

But nature and politics hate a vacuum. So as Republicans head to the GOP convention, many are still prepared for a skirmish.

This time the flash point is taxes and Gov. Pete Wilson's support for Proposition 172 on the November ballot, a measure that would extend a half-cent sales tax to cover public safety costs.

Conservative Republicans have introduced two resolutions for the convention that would place the state party on record as opposing Proposition 172. Since Wilson supporters have pledged to fight the resolutions, the terms of a battle have already been defined.

"It has potential for contention, but it isn't in anybody's best interest to highlight an issue of potential divisiveness at the convention when there are so many key issues on which all Republicans agree," said Dan Schnur, spokesman for the governor.

"Most Republicans are willing to say they will pay an additional half cent in sales tax in order to maintain public safety," he said. "There are those who disagree, and they're entitled to their opinion, but that doesn't mean we won't actively oppose the resolution."

Schnur's assessment of the support for Proposition 172 was confirmed in a Times poll conducted this week, which found that Republicans, like all California voters, favor the plan by a wide margin.

But the tax issue has become a vehicle at the convention for conservatives who have never been happy with Wilson and who now believe that his sagging popularity has jeopardized Republican chances of holding the governor's office.

Taxation, they said, is the best issue to define the differences between Democrats and Republicans--especially since Wilson has supported abortion and gay rights.

"It's a heartbreaking irony for Republicans who expected to capitalize on public anger over Bill Clinton's tax increases," said former Thousand Oaks Assemblyman Tom McClintock, now director of the Center for the California Taxpayer.

But Schnur responded that support for law enforcement is another cherished Republican plank and that there are times when "two fundamental precepts of Republicanism come in conflict." Compared to Clinton's budget, Schnur said, Wilson's relies much less on taxes and more on spending cuts.

"If you look at this budget from a larger context of tax increases and spending cuts, you see a budget that is unprecedented in its fiscal conservatism," he said. "This budget is $2.5 billion smaller than last year's."

The Times poll found that Wilson's support has increased recently, with 40% of voters now giving the governor a positive job rating. At the same time, however, about a third of the voters--including Republicans--said they would prefer someone else.

Some conservative Republican leaders are already convinced that Wilson is a sure loser in next year's election. For that reason, a group of them have spent the last several weeks trying to recruit a candidate to challenge Wilson.

A prominent party official who was involved in the search said, however, that all of the best prospective candidates rejected the idea. "We finally decided it wasn't worth it, because anybody else would lose anyway, and why deplete the party's resources more?" he said.

The list of potential challengers was said to include Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and freshman Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Santa Clarita). McKeon confirmed that he was contacted about running for governor, but he said he is supporting Wilson and has no interest in a governor's race.

McClintock said he has talked to several people about launching his own campaign against Wilson, but so far he has dismissed the idea in hopes that a better-known conservative might enter the race.

"I think it is imperative that Wilson be challenged," McClintock said. "At this juncture, I am listening to the phone calls I've been receiving and assessing whether another such candidate will step forward and, if not, assessing whether the financial support is available to make a credible run."

One of the party officials who said he contacted prospective challengers is the former chairman of the state Republican Party, Jim Dignan. Dignan said his intent was to assess the likelihood of a primary challenge, not to encourage one.

"It's very important that we maintain the governorship, and (Wilson's) polling data is not that attractive right now," said Dignan, author of one of the convention's anti-Proposition 172 resolutions.

Wilson advisers said they do not expect a significant primary challenge. But Schnur said it is "probable" that a Republican will enter the race against Wilson.

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