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Gov. Wilson Stood on Principle, Was Felled by Politics

August 16, 1996|GEORGE SKELTON

SAN DIEGO — All week, Gov. Pete Wilson resembled a gracious candidate in defeat--chin up, brave smile, lively step, seemingly oblivious to the whispers that he's finished politically.

It wasn't supposed to be this way, of course. Governor of the most populous state, an upset reelection winner in 1994, Wilson was rated by some, including the late Richard Nixon, as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. At the very least, if he had not run for president and stumbled, he could have had a lock on the runner-up spot.

But Wilson wound up being denied even a prime-time speaking slot--in his own hometown where he once was mayor--because he had bucked Bob Dole's convention choreographers and led a platform battle for abortion rights. The hullabaloo pushed Dole's tax cut message off the front page, they complained. The choreographers demanded retribution, insiders say, and they also didn't trust Wilson to stick to the script.

"Yeah, it's a little disappointing, the prime-time thing," Wilson conceded Thursday. "But ironically, I wound up having even more air time. So I can't tell you that my First Amendment rights have been greatly suppressed."

Wilson thinks Dole was unaware that subordinates were meting out punishment. "I happen to know that he was unhappy with the fact a speaking invitation was extended and then withdrawn," the governor said.

Several Californians close to Dole, sources say, finally urged the candidate to "fix it" with Wilson and patch up the last lingering fragment of convention disunity. That's how the governor came to introduce Elizabeth Hanford Dole on Wednesday night, for 95 seconds in prime time.

"It was not a 10-minute, substantive speech," Wilson said, "but I was frankly touched and honored."


As Dole's California campaign chairman, Wilson never publicly would predict anything but a GOP victory in November. But the odds heavily favor President Clinton's reelection, which would provide an open race in 2000. Would Wilson, who is about to turn 63, run again?

"Hell, that's too far away," he said. "Is it possible? Yes, it is possible. But two years in this primitive art form is an eternity."

The governor said that when he leaves office in 1999, he'd "love to" write a syndicated column and/or do radio commentary--the same route Ronald Reagan followed to the presidency after Sacramento. "I'd like to do some writing, and I've always enjoyed arguing with people." He also envisions joining a think tank.

But a 1998 Senate race, long rumored as an option, is out of the question, he said.

"No," he replied, and added words that any opponent certainly would throw back at him: "I'd run if I didn't have to serve. I'd be delighted to campaign against [Democratic Sen.] Barbara Boxer. But I don't want the obligation [of being a senator]. It was a great privilege serving in the Senate [1983-91] and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I have done that. . . . I've had enough of the legislative experience."


The line on Wilson among many California party leaders is that he has squandered his presidential prospects and that new blood, especially the convention prime-time speakers, will emerge in 2000: Govs. George W. Bush of Texas or Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, not to mention Colin L. Powell and Jack Kemp.

Typical anonymous comments from many state GOP leaders were: "Pete asked for it"; "Dole was furious"; "It was selfish."

But he had some supporters. Dana Reed, a Newport Beach attorney and longtime party activist, pointed out what many critics chose to ignore: Wilson had an "obligation" to fight for abortion rights because he had vowed to at the 1992 convention. Reed also noted that the governor helped negotiate a compromise--printing the rejected abortion rights arguments in a platform appendix--that avoided a divisive floor fight.

"I couldn't just come to this convention and kiss it off," Wilson said of the platform plank that advocates a constitutional amendment banning abortions. Stifling debate on the issue would have made the party look intolerant, he added.

"In time, this issue is going to go away," he predicted. "An amendment that seeks to criminalize a woman's right to reproductive choice is never going to pass, and [with voters] it's monumentally unpopular."

There's no way Wilson could have emerged from this convention unscathed. If he had been the loyal party member and taken a dive, abortion rights advocates and the news media would have denounced him for breaking his promise. Instead, he kept his promise and was attacked by party leaders as a selfish troublemaker.

But by keeping his word, Wilson earned the right to walk around with his chin up, smiling. Defeated or not.

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