California Crackdown

August 04, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

SAN DIEGO — San Diego. -- It's a big state, so many numbers are bound to be big, but still: In this year's first half, Californians made 332,000 legal gun purchases, a 6 percent increase over the same period last year, a year when California gun sales soared 19 percent. This is one reason why Gov. Pete Wilson would be smiling promiscuously were he not parsimonious with smiles. He is not happy about the anxieties driving gun sales, but he is one of the nation's most seasoned politicians and he knows when issues are breaking his way.

The issues dominating California's gubernatorial campaign, crime and illegal immigration, are considered by many voters to be a single issue, the latter being part of the former. Governor Wilson says California this year will spend $400 million incarcerating illegals who commit crimes, not to mention -- although he is not loath to mention -- $400 million on the medical costs of illegals' babies and $1.7 billion to educate illegals' children, and other expenses totaling about 10 percent of California's budget.

During a long lunch here recently he spoke with what was, for him, notable animation and vehement conservatism about ''idiotically lenient laws,'' his opponent's reticence, until recently, about crime, and her opposition to capital punishment. As a veteran Republican operative says, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown has two problems she can do nothing about -- she's a woman and she's not governor.

Arguably it may be easier to elect women to legislatures than governorships (California's senators are both women), and women do best when ''compassion'' rather than ''crackdown'' issues predominate. Crime and illegal immigration are crackdown issues. Furthermore, a stereotype of softness is reinforced when a woman is a Democrat. Mr. Wilson seems about as soft as your average ex-Marine.

People known for veracity swear they have seen him relaxed, even playful, but mostly his demeanor reminds one that his first California residence was Camp Pendleton Marine base. By 1966 he was elected to the state legislature. In 1971 he began 12 years as this city's mayor. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1982 and re-elected in 1988, he was dragooned by Republicans into running for governor in 1990.

Three statewide races in eight years in a state with 13 media markets (including the nation's costliest, Los Angeles) is an ordeal of fund-raising that marks the survivor. That fact was forgotten by people who counted Governor Wilson out when the recession, deepened here by defense cuts, and tax increases reduced his job approval rating to 15 percent.

His resuscitation has been helped by a calamity, the ''seismic stimulus'' of the Northridge earthquake that shook $9.5 billion out of Congress and generated jobs repairing highways and 21,000 damaged housing units. Now he is being helped by a man-made phenomenon of big numbers.

In 1992 Michael Huffington doubled the previous congressional campaign spending record, sinking $5.2 million of his inherited oil money into winning a seat in the House of Representatives. He immediately hit the ground running -- for the other wing of the Capitol. He is trying to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to which end he had by June 30 spent $9.5 million, all but $300,000 of it his money. The existing record for personal spending by a candidate is the $10.2 million Jay Rockefeller spent winning a Senate seat from West Virginia in 1984. Mr. Huffington may spend more than the total spent by both candidates in the most expensive Senate race ever, the $25.9 million 1984 North Carolina race between Jesse Helms and then-Gov. Jim Hunt.

Mr. Huffington's negative onslaught has driven Senator Feinstein's favorable-unfavorable ratings from 59-28 in January to 47-43 in July. And 30 percent of voters, with O.J. filling their craniums, say they haven't yet seen any Huffington or Feinstein ads. All this helps Governor Wilson by forcing Ms. Feinstein to compete with Ms. Brown for Democratic money, and by adding to the broadcast clutter that makes it hard for Ms. Brown to get her message out. That problem will worsen when Mr. Simpson's trial begins in September.

If Mr. Wilson is still governor in 1996, a place for him on the GOP national ticket is possible. Because Democratic presidential candidates have such troubles carrying much of the South and West, including Texas and Florida (57 electoral votes), they can hardly get 270 without California's 54. Yet no Democratic ticket has ever included a Californian. Eight of the last 12 Republican tickets have, beginning with Gov. Earl Warren for vice president in 1948.

Not all numbers out here are large. Two weeks ago a Field Poll found just 38 percent of Californian's ''inclined to re-elect'' President Clinton.

Most of the -- one more big number -- 121,000 earthquakes the U.S. Geological Survey has recorded since 1987 in Southern California have been small, but almost all the political tremors from this state are big enough to shake the nation.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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