Calif. automatically makes Wilson a top contender


WASHINGTON -- The word from California is that Gov. Pete Wilson, who vowed that if he was re-elected last fall he would serve out his new four-year term, is forming an "exploratory committee" as a prelude to announcing his candidacy for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination.

Fancy that -- a politician giving his word to the voters and then breaking it. It's not quite a time-dishonored tradition, but you don't have to look back beyond Bill Clinton to find the last prominent pol who took that pledge and then reneged on it. Voters don't seem to mind, probably because they've learned not to believe such vows in the first place.

Like Clinton, Wilson has had his eye on the White House for a long time, maybe not since his teens as the folklore on Clinton holds, but certainly since the California governor graduated from being mayor of San Diego to the U.S. Senate and then to the Statehouse.

Stylistically, however, he has kept his lust for the presidency burning at a much lower flame than Clinton did in his run-up to the job. And while he is no spellbinder as a speaker, he conveys a certain steadfastness, even toughness, that wears well with Republican audiences.

In a state that has grown increasingly conservative on the Republican side, Wilson has managed to project a moderate image while steadily embracing key conservative issues that should make him a formidable candidate for the GOP nomination.

A year ago, down in the polls in California, he was given up for gone. But he resurrected his political fortunes by jumping on the issue of illegal immigration that threatens legal workers.

Wilson proposed not only denying welfare to illegals but also denying citizenship to their children born in this country -- a move constitutionally suspect but appealing to those threatened by the illegal immigration flow.

After his re-election, he backed a new state initiative that would end affirmative action in the state, again jumping in front of a very volatile issue dear to conservative hearts. The initiative will be on the ballot in California next year, when the debate over affirmative action is expected to be a centerpiece of the 1996 election.

At the same time, Wilson adheres to his support of abortion rights, putting him on a collision course with the other GOP presidential aspirants except Sen. Arlen Specter -- but in tune with voters who tell pollsters by a considerable margin that abortion should not be banned.

His candidacy should ensure a fight within the GOP over retaining the anti-abortion plank that has been in the party platform since 1980, casting him as a relative moderate for all his other conservative positions.

A Wilson candidacy obviously will undercut long shot Specter and former Tenn. Gov. Lamar Alexander as well. Alexander has based much of his campaign so far on being the only Washington "outsider" in the race. He can note that Wilson was a U.S. senator, but he himself was secretary of education in the Bush Cabinet. Just how appealing to voters an outsider is in these days of outsider Bill Clinton is questionable, anyway.

Wilson can't compete with either Sen. Phil Gramm or news commentator Pat Buchanan in their rigid conservative fervor, but that fact might be a plus for him among Republicans who find Gramm too stiff and righteous and Buchanan too threatening.

That leaves Bob Dole, who is moving rapidly to shore up his own conservative credentials but is already being criticized within the party for a lack of message.

Wilson, so prominently identified with critical issues like immigration and affirmative action, should have no such problem. While he is not nearly as well-known nationally as Dole is, California gives him a big megaphone through which to be heard over the next year.

The fact that California will have the single largest delegation (163 members) to the GOP convention in his hometown of San Diego is an obvious strength going in, although Gramm has said he will challenge Wilson in his home state.

There is some grumbling among California Republicans over the prospect of a Democrat, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, moving up if Wilson goes to the White House. But these Republicans know that denying the state to Clinton in 1996 very likely would deny him a second term, and besides, they've come to like having presidents who come from the Golden State.

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