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NEWS ANALYSIS : Governorship Is a Risky Launch Pad to Presidency : Politics: No sitting California chief executive has won the White House. Losing could badly hurt Wilson at home.

March 22, 1995|BILL STALL | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

As Gov. Pete Wilson nears the point of no return in deciding to grab for the ultimate political prize--the American presidency--he might be nagged by the unhappy experience of the last sitting California governor to succumb to presidential lust. After all, look how Wilson got where he is now.

In fact, no California governor has come close to winning the White House while serving as chief executive in Sacramento.

The last to try was Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., who ran in both 1976 and 1980, got tagged as "Gov. Moonbeam" and fell far short of the Democratic nomination both times. The 1980 campaign was so inept that Brown got only 4% of the California primary vote.

Brown returned to Sacramento as a battered lame duck to sit out the final two years of his governorship. When Brown tried to revive his political career in 1982 by running for the U.S. Senate, he was zapped by California voters again.

The beneficiary of Brown's tarnished image in 1982 was Republican Pete Wilson, then the mayor of San Diego. Wilson went on to win a second Senate race and then two campaigns for governor--the job he touted as the only one he ever really coveted.

Pete Wilson, of course, is not Jerry Brown, and the clues of the past point only dimly into the future. But the possible pitfalls of running for President as a sitting governor are surely being weighed by Wilson as he decides whether to run and, if he does, what type of campaign to wage.

In the end, winning the presidency would make everyone forget the risks. But for any result short of that, the damage to California's governor could be huge.

The risks are not limited just to the possibility of losing. For starters, Wilson may anger many of the nearly 5 million Californians who voted to reelect him just 4 1/2 months ago. Recent opinion polls indicate that Californians are decidedly ambiguous about Wilson running for President so soon after pledging to serve a full second term, until January of 1999.

Wilson's ambitious 1995 legislative program, outlined before he began talking about a possible presidential campaign, faces a fractured Legislature where the absence of continuous gubernatorial pressure could mean deadlock and inaction. Democrats in both the Senate and Assembly have the ability to hold Wilson's state budget hostage if they believe they can win concessions. That it might embarrass a Republican governor running for President is unlikely to be a high-ranking concern.

Then there is the "Gray Davis problem." Every time Wilson leaves California, he abdicates full executive powers to a Democrat, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. Although Davis has indicated that he will be a cooperative stand-in during any Wilson absence--and already has been--there is always the potential for political mischief or unexpected crisis. California, after all, has been home to the nation's most spectacular disasters for some years now.

The unwritten understanding, said Davis chief of staff Garry South, "is that (Davis) does not intend to embark on any kind of behavior that would seek to embarrass Pete Wilson or put him in some kind of box while out of state."

"At the same time," South added, "as acting governor, if there are reasons to act, he will act."

Brown faced the problem of a lieutenant governor of the opposition party when he ran for President, and for a time was bedeviled by Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Curb.

"It was a pain," recalled Tom Quinn, who was Brown's campaign manager. "There were some times when Curb flexed his muscles and created problems."

Eventually, the governor's office and Curb settled into "a working relationship and it was no longer a problem," Quinn said.

For now, Wilson is on a political high, and on the verge of creating an exploratory presidential campaign committee, aides said this week. The mere speculation about a Wilson candidacy has enhanced his political stature. But if he ran and lost, Wilson's prestige could wither, rendering him politically impotent in the final two years of his term. It would be even worse if he was seen to have bungled the campaign--by failing to carry California over President Clinton, for example.

Davis, as gubernatorial chief of staff while Brown was seeking the presidency, has sometimes-painful personal experience with the political clout problem.

"When your stock goes up in an early presidential primary, it goes up in California, politically and substantially," Davis said in an interview. "But the reverse is true. If you come back beaten, battered and bruised, you'll find it tough going at home."

Michael Dukakis learned that lesson after losing his presidential bid in 1988 after a campaign that was based largely on his reputation as the governor who presided over the "Massachusetts Miracle" of economic revival.

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