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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Wilson's Softer Edges May Give Him Edge in '96

March 23, 1995|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson is as warm and fuzzy as an old pet rock. But in this field of Republican presidential contenders he may have the fewest jagged edges. And that could be an attraction when GOP voters begin choosing their party nominee.

Californians probably don't think of their governor as smooth, except in a strictly political sense--a guy, for example, who would promise to serve a full term if reelected, then, after the people vote, quickly morph into a presidential candidate. Sort of a California "Slick Willie."

But that's a different subject. And, anyway, Republicans in other states probably won't care that Wilson wants to void his "contract with California" and is willing to turn over the governorship to a Democrat who was Jerry Brown's chief of staff.

No, the smooth I'm referring to isn't even about personality, although here Wilson also has fewer sharp edges than his principal opponents, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Texas Sen. Phil Gramm.

What I'm referring to is a more rounded ideology, one that goes down smoother with mainstream Republicans who may be hard-rock conservatives on taxes and spending and crime, but are moderates on abortion, prayer, gays and guns.

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Wilson's image has been morphing for many years. First he was the moderate San Diego mayor who imposed growth controls and opposed Proposition 13's property tax cuts. Later as a U.S. senator and initially as governor, he acquired the image of a wimp, mainly because of boyish looks and sluggish speeches--but also by caving in to Democrats on a big tax increase.

Then as his popularity plummeted, the Marine deep within him began emerging. Democratic critics of his illegal immigration proposals could "kiss my rear end." Polly Klaas' alleged killer was a "son of a bitch . . . I wanted to just belt him right across the mouth." He became the tough guy, somebody Bubba could relate to.

He'd always been tenacious and--except for those first two gubernatorial years--politically astute. As America moved further to the right, he made sure his image also shifted.

Wilson didn't originate the illegal immigration and "three strikes" initiatives. But he seized on both as if they were his creations. The governor warmed slowly to California's anti-affirmative action initiative, but last month fully embraced it as a way to "undo the corrosive unfairness of reverse discrimination."

"Fairness" has become Wilson's favorite word. It's central to his message: Washington is unfair to people who work hard, pay their taxes and play by the rules. Variations on this theme will be heard by Republicans everywhere. "California is not a colony of Washington--nor is any other state."

The governor will run as a conservative's conservative on the issues of crime, illegal immigration, affirmative action, job creation, spending and taxes. His pattern--his skill--is to focus intently on his message, wage an air war with TV ads and not be distracted by opponents' flak.

"Any candidate," retorts William Lacy, Dole's deputy campaign chairman, can beam TV ads on these issues "until the cows come home. But how does that distinguish him from the other guy?"

In Wilson's case, one answer is that he can run as an "outsider."

But he also will be distinguished by moderate views on social issues. Even if he doesn't emphasize these centrist positions--and he likely won't--the voters will learn of them, primarily through the news media.

And in a crowded field of conservatives, these softer edges may make Wilson preferable to just enough GOP voters to tip results in his favor in key states.

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In New Hampshire, for example, one recent poll of Republicans found that 53% support abortion rights. Only 26% were opposed. In another survey, 43% said they were "more likely" to vote for a candidate "who is pro-choice"; only 23% were "less likely."

Wilson is not a crusader for abortion rights, but he's a career-long believer in a woman's right to choose. By contrast, Dole and Gramm would outlaw abortion.

Dole last week trumpeted another major difference between him and Wilson when he announced a surprise effort to repeal the ban on assault weapons. Wilson is a centrist on gun control. In a campaign debate last October, he declared, "We should get rid of assault weapons." But he also said, "I cannot in good conscience support a ban on handguns" because people want them for protection.

Wilson opposes school prayer, but supports a moment of silence. He signed a bill outlawing job discrimination against gays and lesbians, but previously vetoed a similar measure he said was more "onerous to employers."

1996 won't be a year for warm and fuzzy, but it could be a time for smoother edges.

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