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Wilson Dissects Failed Run for White House


SACRAMENTO — In his first interview since dropping out of the presidential race 10 days ago, Gov. Pete Wilson offered a candid evaluation of his doomed bid for the White House, starting with his early consideration of a vice presidential candidacy under Sen. Bob Dole and his later realization that even his support in California was unexpectedly soft.

Wilson revealed to The Times that he met with Dole in Washington in February when he was still considering a presidential campaign that would have pitted him against his longtime friend, the Senate majority leader. Wilson said he was under the impression that Dole would offer him a role as running mate, but during the meeting he realized he was mistaken.

"I had been led by a person close to him to expect that [offer], and I think largely that turned out to be a function of this person's desire," Wilson said. "Whatever enthusiasm [Dole] may have had for that, I don't know."

The governor said he might have accepted the potential job of vice president instead of running for the White House.

"I probably would not have said to him, 'No,' " Wilson continued. "But it was not something that I was looking for. I might have entertained the idea with him, but it's not as interesting a job as this one, except with respect to defense and foreign policy."

Wilson said he subsequently decided that he could beat Dole in a Republican primary and, in March, he launched his own presidential exploratory committee.

Today, Wilson said, he is no longer interested in serving as vice president. "This is a better job," the governor repeated.

Campaign Problems

In the wide-ranging interview, Wilson discussed a number of setbacks that he blamed for the demise of his campaign, such as the throat surgery that kept him on the sidelines for more than two months. But even with the problems, Wilson described a campaign that never lost confidence that it could win the White House.

In fact, Wilson made it clear that he believes he was forced out of the race by structural problems in his campaign--not by a personal failing as a candidate. And he said he remains convinced today that his campaign theme was popular and that his strategy to win the White House was working right up to the day he ran out of money.

"It was very painful [to quit], particularly because . . . you can tell when arguments actually work and when they don't," Wilson said. "Contrary to the smug assertion by the pundits, where the message was actually heard, it had great resonance. I think that plain and simple, . . . with the exception of a few major skirmishes, we never got into the war."

One major change Wilson said he would make, however, would have been to better explain to Californians why they should support his bid for President.

Wilson acknowledged that his decision to run for the White House--despite a promise last year that he would not--became a "major vulnerability" for his campaign because it depressed his potential support among California Republicans. Even more distressing, Wilson said, the softness in his California support made it harder to sell his candidacy in the East.

"They had a little difficulty understanding why Californians were not more supportive," he said.

Wilson said his earlier promise to avoid the presidential race did not keep him from entering the contest because he thought it would be "obvious" to most Californians that they would benefit from having a native son in the White House.

"It's still very clear that Californians as a whole don't begin to understand; to appreciate how punishing this [Clinton] Administration has been to them," Wilson said. "And for that reason, I guess they never really understood--though it seemed to me pretty obvious--that a President from California . . . offered them a far greater hope of relief."

Wilson said his standing in California was sabotaged by attacks and malicious rumors spread by opponents in the White House and other Republican campaigns who considered him a major threat. At the same time, the governor said, Clinton improved his popularity in California with a number of "cosmetic"--but high-profile--offerings of assistance to the state.

"What this means is that most people get their news from television and their impressions are formed by seeing the President come here for natural disasters--and we have offered him numerous opportunities for that--and have seen him coming out to dispense back their own tax dollars," Wilson said.

"The thing that we neglected to do is make the case to Californians how they were being hurt by this Administration," Wilson said. " . . . We thought that most people would understand how much more effective a president could be even than a governor."

If he had it to do again, Wilson said, he would launch a campaign to tell Californians about how the Clinton White House has reduced jobs in the state by closing military bases, enforcing overly aggressive environmental policies and thwarting state water policies.

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