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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.


Dukakis boasted of balancing nine budgets as governor of Massachusetts, but the miracle fizzled as he toured the nation in search of votes. The economy soured. Deficits piled up in the Boston Statehouse. Dukakis was forced to raise taxes by $700 million. Not only did he lose the national election to George Bush, Dukakis was finished at home. He announced in early 1989 that he would not seek another term as governor the following year.

The dilemma of trying to manage a big state while running a full-time national campaign was cited by former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. Cuomo seemed to be on the brink of a White House campaign in 1992, but said he would not run unless he could get his fiscal program through the Republican-dominated state Senate. The Senate did not approve the package. Cuomo did not run.

California has sent two Presidents to the White House--Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984--but neither was elected directly from the governorship.

Nixon was a senator from California and vice president, but never the state's chief executive. In fact, Nixon won the presidency only after losing the governorship, to Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr. in 1962. During that campaign, Nixon foes claimed, with some effect, that he only wanted the governorship as a platform for his next presidential campaign.

As governor, Reagan fielded an abortive eleventh-hour bid for the nomination at the 1968 Republican National Convention. The limited effort did not keep him away from the governor's office for any extended period, but did crimp his influence in Sacramento. He pondered running in 1972, but did not.

Defying the conventional wisdom of the time, Reagan left office before running an all-out campaign against President Gerald Ford in 1976. Reagan narrowly lost the nomination to Ford, whose supporters included San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson. Still a private citizen in 1980, but a prolific writer and political commentator, Reagan ran for President again, and won.

The conventional wisdom was rewritten. Now, the experts said, it took a state politician so long to win national recognition and to develop an effective presidential campaign, that being a sitting governor was no longer a political advantage. It was regarded as better to be out of office.

In fact, Clinton is the first sitting governor to win the presidency since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

U.S. senators enjoyed an edge beginning with John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign, in part because the Senate gave them a national platform and an expertise in foreign policy and national security. These were always big gaps in the presidential resumes of governors who were concerned with more mundane issues such as schools, welfare and highway construction.

With the Cold War over, the pendulum may have swung back to domestic issues.

"1996 is probably going to be a year of governors because there is so much strength in the governors' chairs, especially in the outside party," observed Thad L. Beyle, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina and a student of state executives.

"Governors of big states have the ability to campaign for President on the cheap," Beyle said. "All Wilson has to do is win California. If he wins that (the California Republican primary), he's a player."

A player, perhaps, but not necessarily the winner.

Pollster Mervin Field speculates that the best course for Wilson might be to run a modified favorite son campaign rather than a wire-to-wire marathon that would keep him away from California for long stretches.

Although a charismatic candidate might be able to start late and sweep the early primaries, that is not Wilson's strength, he said.

"He's the dogged Marine plugging along," Field said. "What a dogged Marine does is plan every invasion. Everybody's role is decided and prescribed--or proscribed. . . . His biggest challenge is to make sure there's no formidable challenge to him in California."

This strategy also would mute criticism that Wilson was leaving the state too often, and for too long, in the hands of Gray Davis, who routinely is vilified by California GOP conservatives as the arch-symbol of the liberal tax-and-spend enemy.

State Senate Republican Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno is among those who have expressed qualms about Wilson seeking the White House.

"If he's gone most of this year, what happens to our legislative agenda and our efforts to elect majorities in both houses of the Legislature?" Maddy asked.

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