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Wilson Vows Battle at GOP Convention Over Abortion

February 18, 1995|DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — As he contemplates whether to launch a campaign for the White House, Gov. Pete Wilson has rejected recent warnings from religious conservatives and insisted this week that he plans a fight at the 1996 national convention to remove anti-abortion language in the Republican Party platform.

Wilson is among several prominent GOP leaders who have been trying to distance the party from the divisive abortion fights that have split their ranks in the past, focusing instead on the areas where there is widespread Republican agreement, such as proposals from the "contract with America."

If Wilson does run for the White House, one of the biggest differences between his campaign and the others taking shape is likely to be the combination of a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. This month, Massachusetts Republican Gov. William Weld indicated that he may not run if Wilson does because there is only room for one candidate to fill that philosophical niche.

"I still think that makes sense," Wilson said about removing the GOP platform's anti-abortion language. During an interview Thursday with The Times, Wilson added: "I think that is frankly an area in which the government ought not to be involved. . . . The position of its not being in there is in itself a middle ground between a strong pro-choice statement and a strong pro-life statement."

But the central question Wilson is struggling with is: Will he run?

During his reelection campaign last year, the governor denied it. Then he discouraged it. Then he hinted at it. Now, Wilson is in the final weeks of the biggest career decision left in his long and decorated political life. As a 61-year-old second-term governor with a string of four consecutive statewide election wins, has he run his last campaign or is he about to run the biggest one of his life?

Wilson has repeated the same response to that question in almost every interview he has conducted since January--"I have no new ground to break on that." But today, the governor is attending a showcase event for 1996 White House candidates in Aspen, Colo.

Wilson's audience for his luncheon speech will include some of the people most important to a presidential candidate because it is a gathering of the biggest political contributors in the Republican Party.

During the interview in his office, Wilson downplayed his stop in Aspen, saying that he only plans to be there a few hours and that he was responding to an invitation from Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour.

But Wilson also said he expects that some of the guests will ask during private conversations about his White House plans. And he said several prominent supporters have encouraged him to run. "I have thanked them for their interest and . . . when they say, 'Gee, I think you ought to do it' or 'I think you ought to think about it,' obviously I don't dismiss that out of hand," he said.

The handicapping of a Wilson campaign has been under way ever since the governor won a landslide reelection victory barely a year after being so unpopular in the polls that he was largely dismissed as a political cadaver. Recently, the interest in Wilson's plans has grown stronger with the withdrawal of some big-name GOP prospects: Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp and Dick Cheney.

In addition to being a tough campaigner, Wilson's strengths include the ability to raise as much money as the two top GOP contenders--Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. Geographically, he is well positioned as the leader of the largest state, which is likely to play a major role in picking the GOP nominee, especially because the 1996 California primary has been moved from June to March.

Many observers believe Wilson has been positioning himself for a national campaign since the beginning of the year. In his annual State of the State speech last month, he embraced many of the issues at the top of the Republican priority list in Washington--lower taxes, fewer government regulations and less welfare.

In Thursday's interview, Wilson gave hesitant and somewhat reluctant answers to questions about a possible campaign. But he spoke more extensively about the issues he expects to prevail in 1996 and the daunting task next year's presidential candidate will face.

In addition to the conservative warnings about his position on abortion--most recently stated last week by Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed--Wilson also addressed some concerns others have raised about his possible national campaign.

The governor's comments included:

* His prediction that President Clinton will lose his bid for reelection next year. That analysis could be significant in Wilson's decision because it might mean that his next shot at the White House would be nine years away. The governor said that "someday" he would like to serve in the White House. But he also did not rule out a campaign in 2004, when he would be 70.

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