Crime and immigration put Wilson in the lead


GALT, Calif. -- On the morning of his televised debate with state Treasurer and Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson took time from his preparations to address an annual memorial service here for 33 state correctional officers killed in the line of duty.

Hundreds of Californians applauded as 358 new officers graduating from the state's correctional training center were sworn in during the ceremony, which was billed as a non-political event -- less than four weeks before the Nov. 8 election. Without uttering a word about the campaign, Wilson used the affair to reiterate his record and proposals on fighting violent crime that have helped change him from underdog to favorite in his bid for a second term.

The governor hailed the slain officers and new recruits as "the brave men and women who take pride in walking the toughest beat in the state. When we speak of mean streets," he said, "none can be meaner than the cell blocks that correctional officers patrol. These are the prisoners that society has deemed are too dangerous to be on our streets." Wilson then went on to assure his audience -- and the television cameras capturing the non-political scene -- that he had "declared war on crime. We will not rest," he said, "until every Californian can enjoy the fundamental right of civilized society -- that is, not to be a crime victim; the right not to live in fear."

He cited what he called "the most historic anti-crime legislation ever achieved in California," including reforms mandating life imprisonment for three-time perpetrators of violent crime, which he said would "cut adult violent crime by a third." Those convicted the first time for aggravated rape or child molestation, he said, will get 25 years to life. "For them, three strikes is two too many," he said. Then Wilson got around to the death penalty, which he supports but Kathleen Brown opposes, while saying as governor she would enforce the law. The position has plagued her campaign, but Wilson did not mention her; he didn't have to.

"I see a California where you won't have to worry," he promised, "because we've extended the death penalty to carjacking and drive-by shootings that claim an innocent life. . . . The death penalty is not in my view cruel and unusual punishment. It is the appropriate and deserved sentence for those who take a life." The audience applauded enthusiastically.

That same night in their first and only campaign debate, after Wilson had again mentioned Brown's opposition to the death penalty, she suddenly made an emotional disclosure that one of her daughters had been a victim of rape and a son robbed and mugged. Heatedly, she said she resented Wilson's "questioning commitment to be tough on crime." Aides said the disclosure was not part of any planned debate tactic -- "it was vintage Kathleen," one said.

Planned or not, the disclosure dominated much of the post-debate news coverage and comment. It's impossible to say whether it has helped her with voters on the crime issue. In the short term what it did was overshadow her stated mission in the debate -- to promote her detailed printed plan for California's economic recovery and contrast it with Wilson's political shorthand through 30-second television commercials, many of them attacking her.

Aside from their differences on the death penalty, it is very difficult for Brown to try to out-tough Wilson on crime, after enactment of the three-strikes-and-out violent crime bill and the one-strike rape legislation and all his tough talk.

Wilson has also captured the other major California issue this year: the flood of illegal immigration and its drain on the state treasury. He blames the federal government for failing to tighten the borders and then leaving the cost of services to illegals to the state.

The governor supports Proposition 187, which calls for such services to be cut off, including public school education for their children -- about 400,000 in California. "I make no apology," he said in the debate, "for putting California's children first." Brown opposes Prop 187, saying, "It would make a bad situation worse."

With the crime and immigration issues apparently in Wilson's pocket, Brown struggles for a winning issue of her own. The latest Los Angeles Times poll, showing her 8 percentage points behind among registered voters and 13 down among likely voters, indicates she has yet to find it.

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