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California and the West | Capitol Journal

Failure Last Time Remains Wilson's Year 2000 Bug

October 05, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — The most frequently asked question about Gov. Pete Wilson these days is: Does this guy really think he can be elected president?

And the answer is: The guy really doesn't know. But he'll try to find out soon after leaving office Jan. 4. Then he'll begin the process of running for the Republican nomination in 2000.

He'll dial for dollars and take it from there.

"It depends on whether the money is there, plain and simple," Wilson told me over lunch Friday. "And I can't tell you yet. Everybody at this moment is understandably preoccupied with state races. Sometime after the first of the year, we'll take soundings."

How much money does he need? "A hell of a lot," he replied. "Great God, it's hugely expensive."

In 1995 when he ran and stumbled, Wilson raised roughly $6 million. One advisor says that next time Wilson would have to raise $20-to-$30 million.

That's not easy for a politician who is out of office and unable to deliver for donors, win or lose. "Yeah, there are some people who will give because you are [governor]," Wilson acknowledged.

"But at least the people who wouldn't give last time because I was governor--and [Democratic Lt. Gov.] Davis would be if I were successful--those arguments are gone. I've had people say, 'I was angry last time. I wanted you to stay. And you have stayed and you've done a terrific job. And I think you will be a great president. And I will support you this time.' "

Sounds like a candidate to me, I thought, listening to the governor as he sifted through a fruit plate and gulped down minestrone in the Ronald Reagan Cabinet Room.

*

Sure, "I'd like to" run, Wilson said.

"There is a lot that needs to be done. I have candidly been disappointed that the Republicans in Congress have not been more ambitious. I think if they had a Republican president there could be major reforms that would empower this country for a very long time. I can think of nothing more important, more exciting, more fulfilling."

What kind of reforms? "I'll have to say more about that later."

He may be touching on it this fall during out-of-state treks for local candidates, a presidential aspirant's traditional tack for earning IOUs.

Nagging at Wilson is that devastating run for the 1996 nomination. "Clearly a mistake," he has admitted.

The situation was impossible: First, the governor broke his 1994 reelection promise not to run for president. Then there was the GOP nightmare of Democrat Davis moving up. Lastly, throat surgery left him virtually speechless for three months.

A Wilson advisor puts it this way: "You have to be beaten before you get out of the game. He doesn't feel he was beaten. He feels he got injured in the warmup before the game and didn't get to play at all."

But because Wilson did suit up and collapse, he lost credibility as a potential candidate. Now, he doesn't even register a blip in the national polls. They're headed by Texas Gov. George W. Bush, followed by people like Steve Forbes, Dan Quayle, Elizabeth Dole and Jack Kemp.

Moreover, Wilson's a bland speaker.

Still, says veteran GOP guru Ken Khachigian, "It's wide open right now. Realistically, you can't rule out anybody who has a serious record of fund-raising and who has the stature Pete has from the offices he has held."

*

The political road map changed last week when Wilson signed a bill moving up the California primary to March 7, the same day New York and Massachusetts vote. These are states receptive to an abortion rights candidate, such as Wilson.

Whoever wins California will get an early rocket boost. It's winner-take-all for about 20% of the delegates needed to be nominated.

"Before that, there were not a lot of possibilities for Pete," concedes George Gorton, his longtime strategist. "Now, this simultaneously makes it tougher for everybody else and easier for him. It's a new game."

Wilson, 65, may leave office with one of the highest job approval ratings ever for a departing California governor. (Times Poll: 55% approval, 37% disapproval.) And who would have guessed that three years ago, when his rating hit near bottom (34%-61%)? Credit the economy, but also his recent record as a tax-cutter and school reformer.

Yet, 57% of California Republicans surveyed by the Times Poll thought Wilson should not run for president. It's hard to erase old thinking.

What if he hadn't run in '95? That's the second most frequently asked question about Wilson. Answer: He'd be an early front-runner.

Now another run seems unrealistic. But Wilson will gauge that for himself.

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