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CAPITOL JOURNAL

'A Good Year' Puts Some Pep in Wilson's Step

September 20, 1993|GEORGE SKELTON

ANAHEIM — Gov. Pete Wilson is pepped up by polls and party zealots--that hasn't happened in a long time--but pestered by Proposition 174, the school voucher initiative.

There was buoyancy in the governor's step and spirit Saturday as he moved easily among delegates at the Republican state convention. Chants of "Pete! Pete!," which while orchestrated were still unusual, erupted from many delegates as Wilson began an after-dinner speech. He was given a respectably warm standing ovation at the end.

There was only muted talk during the weekend of mounting a right-wing challenge to the governor in next June's Republican primary. Absent a conservative candidate with the stature of Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, who is loyal to Wilson, such a challenge would be doomed and merely squander party resources, many delegates conceded. Few wore the "No Re-Pete" buttons popular at previous conventions.

State GOP Chairman Tirso del Junco, a Pasadena surgeon and longtime political activist, said that conservatives who dominate the party apparatus "still haven't forgotten" that Wilson quickly agreed to a record tax increase during his first year in office. But there now is "much less" animosity, he said, because the 1994 election is approaching and activists realize a Democrat could well become governor.

"Wilson's the only game in town for Republicans," Junco noted.

The governor's stock rose appreciably just before the convention when The Times published its latest statewide poll results. They showed that he has significantly narrowed the gap between him and his potential Democratic opponents, Treasurer Kathleen Brown and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi. Wilson now trails Brown by only eight percentage points, compared to 22 in March, and Garamendi by 10, rather than 17.

When communications director Dan Schnur took these and other Times poll figures to Wilson, Schnur recalled, "He looked them over and told me to 'go hoist a few.' I said, 'You've never told me to do that before.' The governor answered: 'You've never brought me good news before.' "

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But Wilson now is nearing a no-win decision politically on Proposition 174. Despite some in-house advice to duck the issue, the governor realizes he cannot get away with that and has directed his staff to prepare an analysis of the initiative so he can take a position.

School vouchers are supported overwhelmingly by the GOP activists whose backing the governor needs for a united party. Rank-and-file Republican voters, however, are closely divided on the issue, according to The Times poll. And moderates regardless of party--the swing voters who often decide elections--are opposed by 11 points.

Wilson would love to stick it to the California Teachers Assn. by supporting Proposition 174. The CTA is the biggest bankroller of the opposition campaign and last year financed a politically effective blitz of TV ads denouncing the governor's proposed cutbacks in education programs. But backing Proposition 174 would make Wilson a lightning rod for anti-voucher forces, and politically he cannot afford another brawl with teachers.

The governor also cannot afford another bruising budget battle, which is likely what he would get if Proposition 174 passed. Regardless of speculation about possible long-term savings, the initiative would result in "short-term state costs averaging hundreds of millions of dollars annually," according to the legislative analyst.

So Wilson seems to be leaning against Proposition 174 on fiscal grounds.

"While I like the concept of parental choice," Wilson said in an interview, "I'm concerned with what the fiscal impact of this particular measure would be. The dollars concern me because it immediately puts us a billion (dollars) in the hole."

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There are several reasons for Wilson's resurgence among voters after having been virtually written off for reelection by the political Establishment.

One is the demonstration by President Clinton that booting a Republican incumbent and installing a Democrat doesn't automatically bring change for the better. Another is that neither potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate is exciting the electorate. But there also are direct factors: The governor's tough stance on illegal immigration, an on-time state budget without gridlock and a successful legislative session aimed at improving California's business climate.

"It's been a very good year," Wilson told the GOP delegates. "California is back in business."

That is a matter of conjecture. But there can be no doubt Wilson is back in business politically.

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