1996, Here We Come?

June 11, 1994

On Wednesday, hours after the votes were counted in the California primary, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson began the general election campaign with new television commercials. His opponent, Kathleen Brown (daughter of ex-guv Pat, brother of ex-guv Jerry), was way ahead of him. She won the Democratic nomination by running against his record, rather than her primary opponents.

This is the most important gubernatorial race of 1994. It is important for two reasons. The first is the major party candidates and their natural constituencies have starkly contrasting views on the direction the state must take.

Ms. Brown promises "a million new jobs," and blames Governor Wilson for the state's deep and prolonged recession. Governor Wilson says the economy is a national problem, and that in California the real issues a governor must be concerned with are public safety and the costs imposed on the state by immigrants.

The voters who nominated them are already polarized, and the general election campaign for California governor is sure to make it worse. An exit poll showed Brown voters ranked education and the economy first and second as the most important issues, with crime a close third. Wilson voters ranked crime and immigration one and two, with education and the economy a distant fourth and fifth, behind taxes.

California often serves as a forecaster of political trends elsewhere. If fear of crime and "others," rather than fear of economic malaise are seen to be more productive politically in the Golden State, you can expect more emphasis on such issues in campaigns across the land.

The second reason this gubernatorial race is important is that if Governor Wilson is re-elected, he becomes a leading -- perhaps the leading -- contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996.

Even a win by a nose this November would be impressive for Governor Wilson. He was counted down and out by political scientists last year after several years of drastic and highly unpopular budget cuts during the state's recession. His polls were dismal. Since California is the biggest prize in the Electoral College and in convention balloting, and since the state will hold an early primary in 1996, a popular Republican vote-getter as California's favorite son is every other Republican presidential hopeful's worst nightmare.

It's no sweet dream for Bill Clinton, either.

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