WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Last weekend at the Willard Hotel, near the White House he proposes to move into in 17 months, Pete Wilson occupied the Calvin Coolidge Suite. That was not incongruous.
Like Coolidge, whose flinty demeanor concealed a considerable wit, Mr. Wilson only seems as bland as oatmeal. He can be funny and scathing (on foreign policy President Clinton ''doesn't appreciate the gravity of his own inadequacies'') but rarely lets those aspects of his personality interfere with the sedative effect of his public persona.
Like Coolidge, Mr. Wilson has been a mayor and a governor. (He could become the first president to have been a mayor of a major city, a senator and a governor.) And like Coolidge, Mr. Wilson knows how executive action can get the nation's attention.
Governor Calvin Coolidge came to national prominence, and to the vice presidency, because he used the militia to break the Boston police strike of 1918. Mr. Wilson has been around politics since serving as an advance man for Richard Nixon's ill-fated gubernatorial campaign in 1962. He has been in public office since he was elected to the state assembly in 1966. He has been a significant figure since he served 12 years as San Diego's mayor. He has been a player in national politics since he went to the Senate in 1983. He became a political heavyweight when he became governor in 1991. But he did not capture the attention of a national audience until he got the regents of the University of California to repeal affirmative action.
So aides to this 61-year-old, who is on the threshold of his fourth decade in public office, think he may be the closest thing to a fresh face in the Republican race. His issues, like his manner of advancing them, are what you might expect from a former Marine platoon leader. They are four facets of the nation's fraying, as conservatives understand that: affirmative action, illegal immigration (in 1994 he led the charge for Proposition 187, which limits social services for illegals), welfare (there has been a decline in welfare spending in each of his five years as governor) and crime (he was an early advocate of a ''three strikes and you're out'' sentencing law).
He is more interested in defense and foreign policy than any candidate other than Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. He is more hawkish than Mr. Lugar, as in, for example, his support of ballistic missile defense. Hence his opposition to making a fetish of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty that was signed 23 years ago with a nation that no longer exists.
His affirmative action dust-up caused his support for the nomination to double between June and July. Double a small number (5 percent) and you get a not very large number, but it puts him third, close behind Sen. Phil Gramm (13 percent) whose rivals say he is (in the political verb of the week) ''cratering.'' That means crashing to earth hard.
Mr. Wilson still is 42 points behind Bob Dole, but first things first, and the first thing is to become the sole surviving plausible (that is, other than Pat Buchanan) alternative to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. Then he must hope Mr. Dole stumbles and Republicans become more worried than they currently are about the difficulty of defeating Bill Clinton.
Mr. Wilson will not stumble: No one is more doggedly disciplined about staying on message. And having won four statewide elections in 12 years, he can plausibly say to Republicans: Bill Clinton is so weak in the South and much of the West, he cannot win without California's 54 electoral votes, so nominate me and be assured of Republican control of both political branches of the federal government for the first time since 1954.
He thinks the nominee will be known before California's March 26 winner-take-all primary picks 16 percent of the delegates needed to nominate. He says he must finish ''at least third'' in Iowa, and at least second in New Hampshire.
But then what? He says he will do well, with the help of Massachusetts' Gov. William Weld, in New England, but too few people live there. He thinks he will do well in New York on March 7, but New York's Republican leaders, who favor open political competition about as much as Fidel Castro does, support Bob Dole, so even getting on the ballot will be difficult.
The former Marine infantryman probably has the best chance of any Republican to defeat Bob Dole, the former Army infantryman, but it is still a long uphill march from the Willard to the White House.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.