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Governor Is One of Few to Dismiss Wilson Presidency : Politics: He repeatedly says he is not interested. But experts say his comeback makes him a top contender.

November 12, 1994|BILL STALL | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Pete Wilson for President?

After winning reelection as California's governor in a remarkable comeback victory this week, Wilson is appearing with increasing frequency on lists of potential 1996 Republican presidential candidates who have a solid chance of winning the nomination and the presidency.

The 61-year-old governor has repeatedly said he is not interested in national politics and that a second term as governor is all he wants to climax a 32-year career in public office.

Still, the talk of a possible Wilson candidacy should be taken seriously, political experts said Friday. It is, they say, more than the mostly idle chatter that travels the political circuit every time a Californian is thrust into national celebrity by the mere fact of winning the governorship.

"Oh, take it seriously. Absolutely," said Darry Sragow, a respected Democratic political consultant.

William Schneider, a political analyst for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and Cable News Network, said, "A lot of Republicans think he's the answer. He's tough. He's wily. He's created his own miracle. He came up from the worst possible situation and turned the election around."

On Friday, Al Neuharth, the founder and publisher of USA Today, said in his weekly column that Wilson "is far out front for the rejuvenated Republican Party's presidential nomination."

Neuharth, a prominent corporate media figure for decades, went so far as to list potential vice presidential running mates for Wilson.

With its early March primary, California is in the bag for Wilson, Neuharth said. That will allow Wilson to focus on such other big March primary states as New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Florida.

"Win most of those and it's over before April Fools' Day," Neuharth said.

A Wilson candidacy was predicted this year by the late former President Richard Nixon.

The item was greeted as something of an interesting footnote after Nixon's death April 22, when New York Times columnist William Safire reported that one of Nixon's last political predictions was that Wilson would be nominated for President if he survived his reelection effort this year.

Safire, who had been a Nixon aide, quoted Nixon as saying: "If Pete Wilson survives in California in '94, he will be nominated in '96 and will be a strong candidate. He's very good on foreign and defense policy. Been everything--mayor, senator, governor. A moderate on domestic stuff, but not a mushy moderate."

Nixon was something of a mentor to Wilson. The governor's first job in politics was as a 28-year-old advance man in Nixon's unsuccessful campaign for governor of California in 1962. Nixon, then a former vice president, ran against Democratic Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr., the father of Wilson's 1994 Democratic foe, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown.

George Gorton, Wilson's reelection campaign manager, said Friday that Wilson has not changed his position that he is not running for President.

"The governor said as recently as Wednesday that nothing has changed," Gorton said. "I take him at his word that nothing has changed."

When Wilson opened his reelection campaign in March, he was asked by reporters if he would serve a full term in Sacramento and not seek the presidency.

"I'll rule it out," Wilson said.

On another occasion recently, a reporter asked if he planned to serve a full term and not run for national office if reelected this November.

"Yes," Wilson said. He smiled and walked away.

On election night, there were chants of "Pete in '96" and "First Lady Gayle" when the newly reelected governor and his wife emerged at the Republican victory party. As he stood at the podium, one enthusiastic supporter screamed: "Let's go Pete! President Wilson!"

Wilson beamed. The crowd roared.

As long as talk of Wilson for President persists, everything he does will be examined for signs of whether he is running. For instance, he will address the National Press Club in Washington this Friday and what he says will be minutely analyzed by Washington reporters.

What does he have to do now if he wants to run?

Schneider said about all he would have to do is travel around the country.

Other than that, Wilson would have to do little overtly in the near future to make himself a candidate. He is a prodigious fund-raiser and sources said he would not have trouble raising the necessary money in time.

In many states, he will be on the ballot automatically in Republican primaries unless he signs a statement absolutely declaring he is not a candidate.

Two of the last three California governors ran for President with mixed results. Ronald Reagan sought the GOP nomination and lost twice, including an abortive late-blooming attempt when he was governor. Long after he was governor, Reagan came back to win the nomination and the presidency in 1980 and reelection in 1984.

Former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination several times, while he was governor and after he left office.

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