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California and the West

Wilson Campaigns for GOP Candidates in Eastern States

Politics: Appearances by governor, rarely seen at home recently, are watched for hints of presidential plans.

October 25, 1998|DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — It is just over a week until election day and retiring Gov. Pete Wilson is working hard on the campaign trail to help the Republican candidate for governor . . . of Massachusetts.

Back home in California, Wilson has rarely been seen in public events during the campaign to decide whether Democrat Gray Davis or Republican Dan Lungren will replace him in office. But in recent weeks, he has been the keynote speaker for GOP candidates in Washington state, Nebraska, Maryland and now Massachusetts.

As the governor ponders what to do after he is forced from office by term limits next January, such telltale appearances are being closely watched for signs about whether he will attempt a second bid for the White House in 2000.

"He is a friend of mine of some standing who I thought ought to be the president of the United States," former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld told a gathering of GOP contributors Friday evening at his home in Cambridge. "He is an enormously talented individual. We have no more capable public servant in the United States than Pete Wilson."

Weld, who resigned as Massachusetts governor last year to pursue an appointment--later scuttled by Republicans--as ambassador to Mexico, remains a personal friend and strong political ally of Wilson.

During the California governor's unexpectedly brief presidential bid in 1995, Weld was such an active and outspoken supporter of Wilson's White House campaign that he was attacked by hometown critics for not paying more attention to his own state. Today, he still tells audiences that Wilson remains a political soul mate with a moderate Republican profile similar to his own--and to the current GOP nominee in Massachusetts, acting Gov. Paul Cellucci.

Cellucci, the former lieutenant governor who took over when Weld resigned, is clinging to a shrinking lead over Massachusetts Democratic Atty. Gen. Scott Harshbarger. Weld invited Wilson to help the effort by headlining a cocktail-hour reception for about 100 business professionals who were told the California governor shares a Massachusetts-style philosophy that is fiscally conservative and socially moderate.

Weld, however, has always disagreed with Wilson's attacks on illegal immigration, the principal issue that has compromised Wilson's image in California as a political moderate and, some suggest, caused Lungren to avoid many joint appearances with the incumbent governor in the campaign this year.

The warm embrace of Wilson by such far-flung Republican audiences calls attention to the contrast with the governor's activity at home.

Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh said, "It is not up to the governor to determine what role [he] should play, it is up to the Lungren campaign. . . . We have offered to play any role the Lungren campaign thought helpful."

Fund-Raising Help for Lungren

Behind the scenes, Wilson has had a significant role in helping Lungren raise money, with appearances at more than a dozen closed-door fund-raisers. The two Republicans have also scheduled a series of joint appearances around the state during the final weekend before election day on Nov. 3.

But so far, the single time they appeared together in public this fall, the Davis campaign snapped a photograph of the two Republicans on stage and used it in Democratic advertising for the state's Latino community.

"If you are running statewide and you need Latino votes, you just don't appear with Pete Wilson," said one California Republican consultant who requested anonymity.

Lungren advisor Dan Schnur said Wilson has only been available for campaign appearances in recent weeks, after the state legislative session adjourned. Since then, he said, Wilson's unseen influence and work have been more important than public events.

"He is putting everything he has this year into electing Republicans in California," Schnur said. "If you are looking to see the Republican message, Pete Wilson's actions as governor . . . from cutting taxes to reducing welfare to cutting [school] class sizes . . . speak louder than any speech on the campaign trail possibly could."

Still, even at a time when Wilson is scoring the highest public approval ratings of his eight-year tenure, Republican observers said he probably remains more popular in the East than at home.

"I don't think he is viewed as a controversial governor back here," said Peter Berlandi, a Weld supporter who ran Wilson's Massachusetts fund-raising in the 1995 presidential campaign. "Maybe he is in his own state. Here they know he was a U.S. senator and a governor, and they know California is a tough state to manage."

Wilson was warmly applauded in Boston on Friday by some of the same contributors that he acknowledged as onetime supporters of his aborted presidential bid. Speaking in front of a huge antique fireplace on a blustery New England fall evening, Wilson treated one of his biggest political embarrassments as a humorous punch line.

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