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Skirmish Over Taxes Likely at State GOP Convention


For once, Republicans gathering in Anaheim this week for their fall convention are not scheduled to battle over gay rights and abortion.

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 their semiannual state convention, many are 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 increase to help local governments.

Conservatives have introduced resolutions opposing Proposition 172. Wilson supporters have pledged to fight, but his aides are downplaying the conflict.

"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.

The tax issue may become a vehicle at the convention for conservatives who have never been happy with Wilson, and who believe that his modest poll ratings jeopardize Republican chances of holding the governor's office.

Taxes, they said, are the best issue to define the differences between Democrats and Republicans--especially because Wilson has said he supports abortion rights 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.

Some conservative Republican leaders have spent the last several weeks trying to recruit a candidate to challenge Wilson.

However, a prominent party official involved in the search said the best candidates rejected the idea.

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.

"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."

Jim Dignan, former chairman of the state Republican Party, was among those contacting prospective challengers. Dignan said his intent was to assess the likelihood of a primary challenger, not to encourage one.

The three-day state convention opens today at the Anaheim Hilton with about 1,200 GOP delegates, activists and elected officials expected to attend.

It is not unusual for Wilson to be a bit out of step with the state party organization, where conservatives' influence is disproportionate to that in the electorate. But it is a fight he would rather avoid as he prepares for a difficult reelection campaign.

Times staff writer Alan Miller in Washington contributed to this story.

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