Los Angeles -- WHEN Pete Wilson was elected governor o California last fall, it was easy to write him off as another George Bush -- a bland Yalie Republican in a gray suit and a red tie. In his eight years in the Senate he had never made a vivid impression on the political community, let alone the voters.
But after six months in the governor's office, Wilson is demonstrating an aggressively activist brand of Republicanism that contrasts sharply with the cautious stewardship of President Bush.
If he succeeds -- and the early reviews here are extremely positive -- Pete Wilson could become an important enough player on the national stage to be an obvious competitor to the Dan Quayles and Jim Bakers and Jack Kemps in the 1996 presidential campaign.
Wilson has distinguished himself from Republican orthodoxy in Washington and much of the Republicanism that has preceded him here in California by two things. The first is his willingness to use government in what he calls "a preventive way" to deal with problems many Republicans prefer to pretend don't exist. Thus, for example, facing the reality of 65,000 teen-age pregnancies a year and the problem of so-called crack babies, Wilson has advanced a plan to provide Norplant birth-control devices, implants that prevent pregnancies by supplying synthetic hormones, to both teen-agers and drug-users.
Beyond that, however, Wilson seems remarkably free of ideological restraints that so many Republicans, including George Bush, seem to think must be accepted to succeed politically. Although he has been conventionally Republican on such things as defense spending and law and order, Wilson supports abortion rights and, in dealing with a monumental budget crisis this year, has been willing to raise taxes.
Wilson minimizes the political hazard in his position on abortion.
"The party statewide, mainstream Republicans, 70 percent of them are probably pro-choice," he says. And he suggests they eventually will accept the tax increases. "Everybody finds the budget unpleasant," he says. "Hell, I find it unpleasant . . . But most Republicans understand, even if they can't fully comprehend what $14.3 billion means, they know it's an unprecedented gap."
Wilson is not closing that $14.3 million gap entirely with new taxes, of course. Roughly half the shortfall will be met by spending cuts, including a 4.4 percent reduction in the basic welfare plan, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Reaching an agreement on the budget -- and there are still some details to be worked out -- required a careful political balancing act. Even after Democrats were prepared to swallow welfare reductions, Wilson had the task of convincing enough Assembly Republicans, a notoriously ultraconservative bloc, to make up the two-thirds vote he needed to pass the legislation.
The budget bargaining has cost Wilson some political ground, a loss reflected in a rise in his negatives in public opinion polls. But political professionals here think he eventually will realize a gain from his frontal approach to the problem.
"He's biting the bullet," says Stuart Spencer, the state's and perhaps the nation's premier Republican consultant. "It's done him some harm in the polls in the short-term, but in the long-term he'll do fine." Some of the kudos Wilson is earning here these days are a product of the obvious contrast with the style of his dour Republican predecessor, George Deukmejian, who managed to spend eight years in Sacramento without ever projecting a clear image to either the nation or much of California because he so stubbornly resisted playing the activist governor.
But most of it can be traced to Wilson's willingness to see government as a tool to be used. "He's socially aware," a veteran Sacramento reporter says. "He's not living in the dark ages like some of these guys. There's not the circle-the-wagons mentality."
Wilson himself dismisses the notion of comparisons with the hold-the-fort Bush approach to domestic policy. Asked if California Republicans have any trouble reconciling the differences between him and the president on such things as abortion and taxes, he replies: "I don't know that they think about it, to be honest with you."
That may be accurate enough right now. But he is demonstrating that it is possible to be a Republican and still believe that government has some worthwhile functions to perform. If that formula earns him a second term in 1994, Pete Wilson can be a very heavy player in the politics of 1996.