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Wilson Rides New, if Moderate, Popularity Wave

Politics: Strong economy, legislative victories boost ratings as governor applies final touches to his legacy. With another White House bid possible, his strategists make the most of recent developments.


SACRAMENTO — Pete Wilson is enjoying a high point in his career as governor, basking in a politically therapeutic economy and taking bows around the state for a recent demonstration of legislative muscle.

Aides admit it is a rare moment for a politician who--despite a highly successful campaign record--has never ranked among the state's most popular officials. They say his image has suffered from a recession, controversy and an embarrassingly brief bid for the White House.

But now, things are breaking the governor's way. His opinion poll ratings--while still mediocre--are at the highest levels since he took office in January 1991. And at a time when he is supposed to be losing power as a lame duck, Wilson is instead winning credit as the principal architect of this year's major legislative achievements.

"I'm enjoying life greatly, I must say," Wilson said in an interview last week. "I always wanted this job and I'm going to enjoy it right up to the end."

As Wilson applies the final touches to his political legacy--and possibly prepares for another White House bid in 2000--his aides are making sure the latest developments are not missed. It is important enough that they recently gathered a trio of veteran Wilson strategists to meet with reporters and convey their analysis.

As the governor nears the last year of his tenure, the strategy team said it has settled on an explanation for the seeming dichotomy between Wilson's campaign success and his unspectacular public image. Like Machiavelli's prince, they said, the governor is respected even when he is not adored.

"He is an acquired taste," said pollster Dick Dresner.

Dresner, joined by strategists George Gorton and Joe Shumate, said Wilson started poorly, gaining office just as a recession caused a record $14-billion budget deficit. Among the unpopular decisions that followed was a major tax increase that split Wilson from GOP conservatives.

But Dresner said Wilson also has had a difficult time gaining popularity because his administrative style is "professional" rather than inspirational and because he does not have a warm personality.

"Pete has a hard time creating those types of feelings in people," Dresner said. "People don't vote for him because they feel warm about him. They vote for him because he says he believes in X, Y and Z. That is more true about him than anybody I have ever worked for."


A recent independent poll by Mervin Field reflected some of those feelings. It said 55% of California adults agree with the statement: "Pete Wilson does what he believes is right regardless of the political consequences."

But to the governor's critics, the Republican explanation of Wilson's struggle to be popular sounds like a stretch.

"The image he has created for himself is hard-hearted and uncaring, stubbornly demanding his way and being a bully," said Assemblywoman Sheila Keuhl (D-Santa Monica). "I have seen no indication that his popularity has increased at all."

Other Democrats said Wilson's image has improved, but they attributed it largely to the massive turnaround in the state's economic fortunes.

Shortly after Wilson took office, federal defense cuts and a recession combined to eliminate more than 850,000 jobs in California. Today, all of those jobs have been replaced, and California is leading the nation in adding nearly 400,000 more each year.

The growth has bloated state coffers. In the last two years, the state has had a windfall of more than $4 billion in unexpected revenue.

Most of that money was automatically directed to public schools under the rules of Proposition 98. But it was a timely development, because the deterioration in public school quality--as measured by recent national test scores--was becoming a top public issue.

Last year, Wilson said he was responding to the education crisis by spending millions of dollars to reduce the average classroom size in kindergarten through third grade.

Democrats insist they had the same idea on their wish list. But they admit Wilson deftly won credit for the plan.

In other landmark legislation of the past year, Wilson won credit for a decisive role in the design of a new welfare system. The state's new model reflects his emphasis on a rapid welfare-to-work transition but contains partial concessions to Democrats on time limits, legal immigrant funding and community service jobs.

In all, Republican supporters say the economic boost and the legislative initiatives have fueled a high point in the governor's career.

Last month's Field Poll reported the governor's job performance rating at its highest level since he was first elected. In the poll, 32% of the respondents said Wilson is doing a very good or good job, 27% said he is doing a fair job, and 38% rated his performance poor or very poor.

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