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Wilson Wades Into Battle for New England Votes : Politics: Governor is pinning his presidential hopes on the Northeast. Aides are test-marketing commercials while he meets the people.

August 06, 1995|DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROCKLAND, Me. — Sprung from the dungeon of last week's arduous budget negotiations in Sacramento, Gov. Pete Wilson jetted to the 1995 Maine Lobster Festival on Saturday to meet some of the voters in this rustic vacation spot, where his aides have secretly begun test-marketing the first television commercials of his campaign.

Wilson's strategists, believing the governor's political profile is a better fit in the Northeast than elsewhere, are devoting a major portion of their efforts to New England. They hope the region can give Wilson an early boost but fear that if he does not win in some early contests in this part of the country next spring, he will never recover elsewhere.

The campaign demonstrated the importance of this area last week by test-marketing TV spots in Maine to measure the effect of his message. The ads depict two Wilson campaign themes--fairness and personal responsibility--that are, the governor argues, exemplified by his stands against illegal immigration and affirmative action.

Wilson aides refused to discuss what sorts of tests they are conducting, but typically campaigns will purchase small slots of television time and then arrange focus groups to gauge reaction to the ads. In addition to Maine, Wilson is also testing ads in South Carolina, and aides suggested that a handful of other states may be targeted as well.

In the meantime, Wilson engaged in some old-fashioned retail campaigning, marching in a Main Street parade behind firetrucks, pounding school bands and Shriners buzzing around in tiny cars.

"What stage is this?" Wilson asked after the parade. "It's the stage called liftoff.

"We are enjoying the fact that our poll numbers have doubled while others have fallen or stayed the same."

The doubling Wilson referred to is a less dramatic move than it might seem. The latest national poll, conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, showed Wilson's support had grown to 10% from 5% earlier this summer. Still, his was the only campaign to show any particular rise, contributing to a sense of optimism among the governor's aides.

With the California Legislature adjourned for its summer recess, Wilson is able to dedicate several weeks to his presidential bid. His campaign is also still benefiting from the boost of national attention he received last month when he convinced the University of California Board of Regents to drop affirmative action guidelines.

Wilson is still climbing back into the race after a late, slow start this spring. But in the last few weeks, the governor has recruited some prestigious aides who have enough credibility to raise eyebrows.

In New Hampshire, the campaign signed Paul Collins, an aide to former Gov. John H. Sununu. Collins was described in the Manchester Union Leader as one of the state's best political organizers.

In Maine, Wilson hired the former executive director of the state GOP, Ben Coes, who was credited by his former associates at an event Saturday as an instrumental player in the party's recapture of the state Senate last year. Coes will work in Sacramento to coordinate Wilson's New England efforts, while Jeff Butland, the Republican leader of Maine's state Senate, will head his operation in Maine.

As in most of the states Wilson has targeted, many of the major GOP officials in Maine have endorsed Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. The result is that Wilson's campaign has adopted a guerrilla strategy, focusing on up-and-coming politicians willing to gamble on a second-tier horse, and the key grass-roots organizers who can help develop a base of support.

"Our attitude is that we are very confident about where we are right now," Coes said Saturday at a Republican pancake breakfast in a wooded resort called Tenants Harbor. "Our goal is not to peak in August. Our goal is to peak in the New Hampshire primary, and, right now, we are building the foundation for that."

Wilson's hope for success in the Northeast rests largely on two factors: his support for abortion rights and his strong backing from Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld. There are six Republican governors in the Northeast who support abortion rights--four in New England plus Pennsylvania and New Jersey--underscoring the area's attraction to politicians who are moderate on social issues.

Like Wilson, many of these governors are also fiscal conservatives, scaling back welfare programs and shrinking their budgets.

Wilson's campaign also hopes to tap into skepticism of the federal government since two of his chief rivals are from Capitol Hill: Dole and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.).

Maine voters underscored their anti-government attitude in the 1992 presidential election by giving Ross Perot his only second-place finish in the nation, just ahead of then-President George Bush.

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