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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Dream for Wilson Could Be a Nightmare

March 16, 1995|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson these days dreams of accepting the 1996 Republican presidential nomination as convention delegates cheer him in hometown San Diego. Later, the 43rd President delivers his inaugural address on the wintry steps of the nation's Capitol.

Remarkably, his voice doesn't crackle and nobody's eyes glaze.

But there is another dream that seems just as real--and it is Wilson's worst nightmare: He loses his home state primary. Then, at the convention, he isn't even seriously considered for the vice presidency. His political future dies.

It is a nightmarish scenario that, although improbable, is still possible.

Wilson's biggest asset as a presidential candidate is not his extraordinary energy nor his knack for capitalizing on hot issues. It's that he is a Californian. His state offers the biggest bloc of convention delegates, and it's a winner-take-all primary.

But no sitting California governor ever has captured a presidential nomination. The last to try was Democrat Jerry Brown, who won the state's primary in 1976, but received only a minuscule 4% of the presidential primary vote four years later. He never recovered politically.

Wilson and Brown are opposites in politics, party and personality. Yet the basic principle applies: Californians won't vote for a candidate merely out of home-state loyalty.

And so far, Californians don't seem terribly excited about the prospect of America's second President Wilson. Indeed, the most excited Californian probably is the governor, who loves a fight. Most insiders expect him to formally jump into the ultimate political fight around April 1.

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Wilson never has been a heroic figure to California Republicans, unlike Ronald Reagan or his mentor, Richard Nixon. To many conservatives who dominate the party, he's neither fish nor fowl.

He's with them on crime, illegal immigration and welfare, but he also raised taxes, opposed school vouchers and favors abortion rights. California Republicans with long memories recall that he campaigned for then-President Gerald Ford against Reagan in 1976.

An unknown computer nerd, Ron K. Unz, won 34% of the vote against Wilson in last year's gubernatorial primary after being outspent by the incumbent nearly 5 to 1. Back in 1982, Wilson won the GOP Senate nomination with 37% of the vote in a crowded field. But in 1978, he finished a distant fourth with only 9% in his first bid for a gubernatorial nomination.

That's ancient history, and Wilson now is riding the crest of an impressive reelection victory, having been supported last November by 91% of Republicans who easily preferred him to Democrat Kathleen Brown. The governor's job rating has rebounded, according to a recent Times poll.

But the same poll echoed what many high-ranking California Republicans have been saying privately. Most GOP voters--59%--want Wilson to forget the presidential race and do his job as governor. That's what he repeatedly promised while running for reelection. And if he did abandon the office, his successor would be Jerry Brown's former chief of staff.

I called some Republicans surveyed by the poll and this is what they said:

"He pledged not to run and I think he ought to keep that pledge . . . I don't think I would trust him too much in the White House."--Ken Clark, 55, a San Bernardino truck driver.

"I think he'd make a good President, but I think California needs him worse. I guess I'm being selfish. I don't know where (Lt. Gov.) Gray Davis stands and that scares me."--Curt Fromknecht, 36, a Santa Ana landscape architect.

"I like Gov. Wilson, but I know people who don't like him and don't like to listen to him talk. I just think it would be hard for him to win and we don't want a loser."--Margaret Taylor, 76, a Bakersfield widow.

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To avoid being a loser in California, Wilson can't look like one in the earlier primaries. Californians will want to vote for a candidate they believe has a good chance of being elected President.

That means the governor must spend a lot of time campaigning this year in the East so he can finish at least third in New Hampshire and run well--chronologically--in states such as Maryland, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. Then the fight comes to California on March 26.

To evade his worst nightmare, Wilson must set a wake-up alarm to go off before California if he hasn't won a big primary. He then could endorse the GOP front-runner, crawl back under the cozy blanket of California's Capitol and survive to fight another day--perhaps as a vice presidential running mate and/or in the year 2000.

But if he's winning before California, his San Diego dream could become a reality.

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