SACRAMENTO — Think what you want about Gov. Pete Wilson, no Democrat has ever beaten him. Kathleen Brown, Dianne Feinstein, Leo McCarthy, Jerry Brown--they all flailed away and failed.
"Presumably they were the best their party had to offer," Wilson says. "I respected them all and actually enjoyed the battle."
If Democratic pols wince at this uncomfortable reality, Republicans should open their eyes wide. Because the protective armor Wilson has worn in every victorious campaign is his strong support for abortion rights.
And he maintains the GOP needs to "come to grips" with this issue "that is losing us votes wholesale."
The latest prime example, Wilson notes, was Republican Dan Lungren's landslide loss to Democrat Gray Davis in the November election to choose his successor.
"People talk about the Latino vote," Wilson says. "What killed Lungren was that he lost 940,000 women who voted for me [in 1994] and he lost 670,000 self-described moderates. . . .
"Davis was relentless in his attack. Lungren got badly beaten up on that issue. . . .
"What I'm trying to tell a number of my 'pro-life' friends is that the majority of Californians--and Republicans who are 'pro-choice'--are not advocates for abortion. They simply do not want government making so intimately a personal decision for women."
Democrats clearly understand that, even if Wilson's own party--ostensibly the party of individuality and self-responsibility--does not.
What makes all this relevant is that Wilson may be the only candidate running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 who supports abortion rights.
He carries a double-edged sword, of course, because the GOP has been fervently anti-abortion in recent presidential elections. Indeed, Republicans have been nominating only so-called pro-life candidates, although party icon Ronald Reagan wisely muted his views except when around the religious right.
Wilson long has argued that the GOP should shred its "unrealistic" platform plank that calls for a constitutional ban on abortion. "It's offensive and obnoxious to so many people."
The plank should be replaced, he continues, with one that is "more responsible and less damaging electorally"--something that advocates "changing the behavior of adolescents" and discourages them from conceiving babies. "We ought to be making every effort to say to kids, 'You're not ready to have a child. Don't ya dare have one.' "
Then "the Republican Party," Wilson asserts, "should return to its basic appeal"--fiscal prudence, lower taxes, job creation, crime-fighting and "military credibility."
"Every time we have done that we have won elections."
Wilson chatted about this one afternoon last week in between box-packing and rewarding allies with some final appointments.
The departing governor still planned to name a dozen trial judges and use his waning power to fill 288 seats on boards and commissions. Gov.-elect Davis can yank those 288 appointees, but it will be awhile before he finds the time.
Shortly after Christmas, Wilson will move out of the state-leased gubernatorial residence so the new governor can move in before his Jan. 4 inaugural.
I asked Wilson whether his eight years as governor had gone by quickly or slowly. "It's gone like that," he said, snapping his fingers. "It's shot by. I can't believe it's over. . . .
"For me, it's a bittersweet time. I feel very good about what we've done. But I've enjoyed it so much that I hate to leave the job." And he added a favorite quip: "Term limits seemed like a good idea at the time."
One decision Wilson regrets--"clearly a mistake"--was launching a brief, ineffective presidential bid at the start of his second term. "You can't do that and run the state and I found that out. I wound up shortchanging the campaign."
Soon, he'll move into Ronald Reagan's office complex in Century City and try to run again, this time as damaged goods because of the earlier failure. Why the Reagan office? "I like everything about it: the symbolism, the location--it's a half block from our condominium--and the sweeping view, almost from downtown to the ocean."
By summer, Wilson will decide whether he can raise the "table stakes of $15 to $25 million" to fund a campaign. "It's tough as hell."
But he adds: "I've got a hell of a resume. I've had what some people think is the best apprenticeship of anybody seeking the office"--big city mayor, U.S. senator, governor of California.
Wilson also has one other thing, even if he has scant chance of winning the Republican nomination. He has an abortion position that can get a Republican elected.