In the last several months, as Texas Gov. George W. Bush revved up his presidential campaign in California, the names of seven "influential Californians" who will lead the effort here have been unveiled and the endorsements of two little-known Republican officeholders have been lauded.
But the Bush campaign has publicly ignored the face of the California GOP for the last decade--and the only Republican to win a big-ticket race here since 1987: Former Gov. Pete Wilson.
Soon the campaign is due to unveil a California steering committee and, as things stand now, Pete Wilson's name is not on it.
It is not because Wilson is declining to endorse Bush; indeed, according to some close to the former governor, he is in Bush's camp.
It is not because Bush is loath to involve former governors; indeed, three former and 23 current governors dot his campaign's official list of supporters.
It is, simply put, a matter of the image the Bush campaign is trying to convey. The image, that is, of a compassionate conservative--ironically the very slogan Wilson used in the years before his own political image became entwined with initiatives on touchy issues such as illegal immigration and affirmative action.
As one Bush partisan delicately put it: "We really are committed to not being divisive in any way. We really want to be inclusive."
To bolder political analysts, Wilson's absence thus far means the Bush team figures that a high-profile presence by Wilson would hurt more than it would help.
"It does not take a brilliant California political mind to gauge that if the most recent two-term California governor hasn't been added to their committee yet, they've already made that political calculation," said a veteran California Democrat.
Gerald Parsky, chairman of the Bush effort in California, would say only that "the initial campaign leadership has been announced."
"If there are going to be additional announcements, it'll come . . . in time."
Those familiar with conversations between the Bush campaign and Wilson said an endorsement may well be rolled out in the future.
"If there is a problem with [Wilson] and the Bush campaign, it's news to us," said one alumnus of Wilson's campaigns.
One Wilson veteran said the former governor had been told the campaign would prefer a fall endorsement. "It doesn't make a rat's bit of difference if you endorse now or in the fall," he added.
Other Wilson loyalists resent the Bush campaign's treatment of Wilson. "They have kept him at arm's length," one said.
Wilson's spokesman, Sean Walsh, said the former governor "believes that George W. Bush is the strongest Republican candidate in this election and can and will defeat any Democratic opponent."
As for an endorsement, Walsh added: "It is principally dependent on their desires and beliefs as to what Pete Wilson could bring to a successful campaign."
The Bush campaign's delay in touting a Wilson endorsement contrasts sharply with the candidate's praise of the former governor during his first campaign swing here in June.
"I don't feel I should distance myself from Gov. Wilson," Bush said in Los Angeles in response to a reporter who asked if he was doing just that.
"He's a friend, he's an ally. I hope he gets me elected," Bush added. "I like him. He's a good guy. He's made decisions as he saw fit here in the state of California and I welcome his support."
But during the same trip Bush distanced himself from some of Wilson's more provocative positions. He said he disagreed with the Wilson-propelled Proposition 187, which would have barred illegal immigrants from government programs, because it would have denied children access to public schools.
Some Wilson allies took offense not at the policy disputes but at Bush's description of himself as one who believes "you cannot lead by dividing people and pitting people against each other"--words taken as a dig at Wilson.
The endorsements of past and present governors are usually prized because they confer on a candidate a well-oiled political machine. In that sense, however, it could be argued that Bush does not really need Wilson right now.
Aided by most of Wilson's former fund-raisers, Bush is raising money at a historic clip. Also, his campaign has been besieged by volunteers, many of them new to the process.
The Bush campaign would like to maintain that sense of freshness--and that position plays against a high-profile presence by Wilson or any other veteran politician.
Wilson's supporters suggest that Bush could benefit from Wilson's experience, which includes two successful runs for governor and two for the U.S. Senate. Although Wilson's stances on illegal immigration and affirmative action were controversial, they say, they were generally popular with voters. Unlike Bush, Wilson is also aligned with voters on two other influential issues: abortion and gun control.
As he left office this year, Wilson was enjoying a renaissance of sorts, with his job ratings matching his record high.
But among Latinos, a key Bush target, only 39% approved of Wilson compared to 59% of whites. Appealing to them--and another target audience, women--is central to the Bush campaign's effort in California, where the Republican Party is otherwise moribund.
"There's no question we have as a very high priority demonstrating to the Hispanic community that this is a candidate they should support," Parsky said.