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Governor Has Staked Out Hot Button Issues


WASHINGTON — California Gov. Pete Wilson's candidacy promises to rearrange the shape of the Republican presidential race, even though he faces significant barriers to fulfilling his hope of winning the White House.

If Wilson's decision Thursday to form a presidential exploratory committee leads him to formally join the race--as most expect--he would enter the field as a full-fledged rival to the current front-runners, Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas and Phil Gramm of Texas. "Wilson is a legitimate big foot in the race," former Republican National Committee Chairman Richard Bond said.

Wilson's assets are substantial. California provides him an immense political and fund-raising base and he has demonstrated a sharply honed message on a combination of values issues that some analysts consider the most powerful force in politics today--affirmative action, illegal immigration, welfare and crime.

"There is no candidate out there, potential or current, who is better positioned to take advantage of those issues," said GOP pollster Steve Lombardo, who is not affiliated with any of the candidates. "Everyone else is talking about them, and he has taken action."

But Wilson also begins with little name recognition nationally or in the critical early states, a record of moderation on social and tax issues that will place him in conflict with some of the party's most militant and best-organized constituencies and the need to catch up with candidates who have spent months--in some cases years--assembling support in key states on the calendar.

Faced with those challenges, Wilson's advisers are drafting unconventional plans that de-emphasize grass-roots organizing and stress California-style media strategies to sell the governor's message of fairness for "people who work hard, pay their taxes and obey the laws of this country." The Wilson campaign, said George Gorton, his senior political adviser, "will be message-driven, not organization-driven."

Even so, Republican strategists said, Wilson will not be exempt from the traditional challenge that faces all candidates--trying to find a way to break through before voters in Iowa and New Hampshire winnow the field. "The dilemma for them is where do you start this thing?" said Scott Reed, Dole's campaign manager.

Just by entering the race, Wilson would scramble calculations for the other Republican hopefuls. As a candidate who supports abortion rights, he would threaten to eclipse Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who has based his campaign largely on his support for legal abortion. And with his base in Sacramento, Wilson would void former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander's claim to be the one Washington outsider in the race. One indication of Alexander's concern may be the sharp attack that he launched Thursday on Wilson for breaking his promise made in last fall's campaign to serve out his second term as governor.


Most significantly, Wilson would add a major new factor in the duel between Gramm and Dole. Gramm is running hard toward the right, hoping to consolidate support among the activist conservative elements of the party. Dole is hoping to blunt Gramm's charge among conservatives and run up large advantages with the less ideological elements of the party.

Most analysts believe that Wilson, with his hybrid mix of conservative and moderate positions, primarily would take votes that otherwise might go to Dole and perhaps Alexander, both of whom present a less ideologically rigid profile.

Although Wilson has moved steadily to the right since 1990, in a contest with Gramm and Patrick Buchanan he would enter the presidential race, relatively speaking, as a moderate. Indeed, his record on social issues and taxes puts him crosswise with some of the most energetic and influential institutions in the party.

Hoping to inoculate himself against attacks focusing on his approval of a $7.5-billion tax increase in 1991, Wilson on Thursday staged his announcement at the offices of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., named for the late activist who co-sponsored the landmark Proposition 13. None of the dignitaries mentioned that Wilson opposed Proposition 13 in 1978, and Joel Fox, president of the taxpayers group, offered to campaign for Wilson in New Hampshire, where hatred of taxes is legendary.

Wilson favors abortion rights and wants to remove anti-abortion language from the party platform. He has signed legislation to prohibit employment discrimination against homosexuals. And he opposes a repeal of the ban on semiautomatic weapons that Congress approved last year.

With the exception of the state tax increase, those positions might stand Wilson well in a general election but they will be more difficult to defend in a Republican primary where well-organized conservative groups can exert enormous influence.

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