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When all the rhetoric is stripped away, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown agree on the basic concept of workers being required to have a card that offers proof to prospective employers that the holder is legally residing in the United States. There are differences on the details, but general agreement on the concept.

But this week the issue of identity cards mushroomed into a volatile campaign dispute between Wilson and Brown, apparently triggered by a misunderstanding Tuesday over a single word.

By Thursday morning, Brown was standing beside a huge mock-up of a "National Identity Card" bearing Wilson's photo--not a flattering one--and vital statistics that understated his height by five inches--and declaring:

"Pete Wilson's latest idea is about big government, about Big Brother, and about a police state. It's a bad idea and it is wrong," Brown said, standing outside the Department of Motor Vehicles building in Hollywood.

In San Francisco, Wilson told reporters: "I have never, ever supported a national ID card." And he added, "I have never seen such hysteria on any issue."

The episode illustrates how it is possible in the heat of an election campaign for rhetoric to overtake facts, how an old subject can suddenly be new when thrust in a different context, and how a campaign can seize on a hot issue if it seems to be headed in the direction the candidate wants to go.

Indeed, Brown's campaign handlers have detected a dramatic swing of opinion in the polls during the past two weeks away from support of Proposition 187, the ballot measure to deny education and non-emergency health care to illegal immigrants. Until this week, polls had found overwhelming support for the measure.

Brown opposes Proposition 187; Wilson supports it. The Brown campaign believes that voters switching from "yes" to "no" on Proposition 187 are likely to vote for Brown, the state treasurer.

The ID issue first came up early in the week when Susan Yoachum, political editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, interviewed Wilson on the subject of ID cards and wrote a story for Wednesday's editions of the Chronicle.

In her article, she related saying to Wilson at the end of the interview: "You're governor, you're reelected governor, 187 passes. Will there be a card that people have to carry in California to prove that they are legal residents?"

Wilson replied with a simple "yes," according to Yoachum.

Nothing Wilson said was substantially different than he had been saying for the last two years on the issue. But the use of the word carry put a new perspective on the issue, along with the proximity to the election, when experts have expected the ballot measure to pass.

The idea of everyone having to carry cards, and not just those who might be called on to demonstrate they are in the country legally while seeking a job, for example, put fresh light on the idea of ID cards.

Brown seized on the issue Thursday. She had scheduled a routine news conference in Burbank.

At the end, she said in a solemn voice: "Rather than just tell you what I think about it, I'd like to show you what I think about it. I'd like to ask you in the press to come with me, take a little trip, a journey with me, and I'll show you what I think of Pete Wilson's latest cockamamie idea, which is a national ID card for everyone."

Staff aides handed out directions and everyone drove to the Department of Motor Vehicles building in Hollywood, puzzled as if they'd just been plunked down in the middle of a scavenger hunt. At the DMV, Brown stood by the mock-up of the Wilson ID card and criticized Wilson for wanting to create a vast new bureaucracy and spend billions of dollars on identity cards.

Wilson met with reporters, including Yoachum, in San Francisco Thursday and said he had not heard Yoachum say the word carry in her question.

Cards would be needed, he said, only when someone was applying for a job or entering a child in school. They would not have to be carried all the time. This was a critical difference in the meaning of his response, he added.

But the Brown forces already were in motion to capitalize on a political opportunity.

Brown chose the DMV office because she has used the DMV as an example of waste and inefficiency during the Wilson Administration.

"Who's going to create this card and administer it?" she asked. "It sounds to me like a cross between the IRS and the DMV, which sounds to me like a disaster."

One of Brown's complaints against Wilson's card proposal is that the facilities would have to be created from scratch. She has proposed that the federal Social Security card be made tamper-proof and be used as the identification needed for obtaining a job. But all existing Social Security cards would have to be replaced with tamper-proof versions.

In Brown's own economic plan, of which she has distributed 1.8 million copies, she minimizes the cost of converting to new Social Security cards, saying the DMV can issue driver's licenses for $7.40 each.

In any event, Brown proposed the costs of each card be covered by charging a fee to the cardholder.

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