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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Wilson's in a New Race--Is Timing Right?

March 13, 1995|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Let's cut through the bunk and state the obvious: Gov. Pete Wilson already is running for President.

True, he hasn't made a formal announcement. And he does need to make one to flip on the full media spotlight. But we don't need an announcement to be told what we already can see and hear.

He's raising money under presidential campaign rules. He's trying to line up financial contributors and big-name endorsers, such as governors. He's recruiting political staffers from all over the country. He's doing a lot of network television and has developed a TV smile. He talks on "Larry King Live" of the need to cut the federal deficit, cut taxes, cut spending and "stabilize the dollar."

It's the old duck test--if it walks and sounds like one, it is one. Ignore semantics about "testing the waters." Wilson's acting like--and is--a candidate in the warm-up lap of a presidential race. The only mystery is whether he'll finish the race.

Few doubt he'll make it to the green flag, a formal announcement around the end of the month. "He hasn't made the final commitment, but if he doesn't run, everybody's going to be flabbergasted," says one adviser.

"It's full speed ahead," says another.

But before he gets too far down the track, the governor should be asking himself just how much sense this makes.

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I'll be the skunk at the tailgate party. Nobody should begrudge a politician's presidential aspirations. But there are questions here of values, timing and risk.

Not "family values," but values of obligation and commitment to the electorate. Wilson did, after all, repeatedly promise Californians last year that he would serve a full term if reelected governor. "I'll rule it out," he said of a 1996 presidential race.

Breaking his promise "admittedly would be a great change in plans," Wilson told Larry King Friday night. "On the other hand . . . a lot of people have come to me and said they really think I have a duty to do something else."

That's not the thinking of most California voters, however. A Times poll last week found that 63%--including 59% of Republicans--believe the governor should not run for President.

Says one high-ranking state Republican, speaking anonymously: "I expect people to do what they say they're going to do. When Pete Wilson said he wasn't going to run for President, I took him at his word. That's the problem with politics today. You guys write about how cynical politicians are, then they go out and prove you're right. That just makes the public more cynical."

This attitude, however, is regarded as too Pollyannaish by most politicos.

One Wilson insider says the governor shouldn't worry about his pledge because most voters probably didn't believe him anyway; he should just say he made a mistake.

The official spin will be that Wilson can do more for California as President than he can as governor. That's true in many respects. But he couldn't appoint state judges or regulators. That power would fall to a Democrat, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. Sure, Bill Clinton abandoned the governor's office in Arkansas to become President, but he was succeeded by a lieutenant governor of his own party.

Wilson is considering a ballot measure that would require a special gubernatorial election if he quit, obliterating the lieutenant governor. That might smack voters as too cynical and opportunistic even for a politician.

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But enough of this wimpy idealism. There's also the political question of timing.

It's conventional wisdom that this is Wilson's time. He's hot. Clinton's vulnerable. A new President will be elected. Wilson can't wait until the year 2000 because another Republican then will be occupying the White House. Even if not, he could cool off. He must prove his mettle now.

This all sounds familiar, like a certain gubernatorial race. Wilson was hopelessly vulnerable. Treasurer Kathleen Brown had to run because it was her time. But times change swiftly. And Clinton is a tough campaigner who may look better and better--as did Wilson--the more voters scan alternatives.

Regardless of when he runs, Wilson always will retain his biggest asset: that of being from the biggest state. However, he won't always be the governor with an endemic ability to lure special-interest contributions.

The risk in running now is that he could be beaten badly in the East and limp back home a humiliated loser, a lame duck who had squandered his second term and would be remembered primarily as a governor who wore a parka and issued disaster proclamations. He could forget the vice presidency and the year 2000.

He also could defy the odds and become the 43rd candidate for President to get the checkered flag.

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