Job it is to speculate about politics once...


September 07, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN

SOME WHOSE job it is to speculate about politics once thought Gov. Pete Wilson was a dream candidate for president, then decided he was going nowhere and now are moving back toward the first view.

That's because after many stumbles he is doing better in the polls in his home state of California. Not a lot better, but enough to make people take notice.

Before he made his formal announcement of candidacy late last month, Wilson was running behind Sen. Bob Dole for the Republican nomination by 20 percentage points (17-37). After his announcement he cut that to 12 points (22-34).

And he increased his lead over every other Republican who has been mentioned for the Republican nomination. For example, he went from 8 points ahead of Sen. Phil Gramm to 13. He even overtook Undecided. He was behind 1 point (17-18) and is now ahead 5 (22-17).

So pretty good news. As pundits are forever reminding readers, California provides more Republican delegates and more electoral votes than any other state. One-sixth of the Republican delegates needed to nominate at the convention (in Wilson's hometown of San Diego) next year will be Californians. One-fifth of the electoral votes needed to elect will be cast by Californians.

Some Wilson advocates (including Wilson himself) like to say that he is the candidate Bill Clinton fears the most. Why? Because Clinton absolutely, positively has to carry California to be re-elected.

Right conclusion but wrong reasoning. In 1992, Clinton carried California. But even if George Bush had carried it, Clinton would have won with ease in the Electoral College, 316 votes to 222. Not only that, but the historical record shows that a Democrat doesn't have to carry California. Jimmy Carter won in 1976 without it. Jack Kennedy won in 1960 without it. Woodrow Wilson won in 1912 without it. Grover Cleveland won in 1884 without it.

On the other hand, the only Republican to get elected president while losing California was James Garfield in 1880. (California was no giant then; it cast less than 2 percent of the Electoral College total.)

So California is crucial for the Republicans, not the Democrats.

But can Wilson carry his home state? Some detractors say no, in large part because when he was running for re-election last year he swore he'd serve out his term. But that means little. Bill Clinton did the same in 1990 -- and carried Arkansas in the 1992 presidential election.

Other Wilson critics say he can't win because he has changed his position on so many issues since he got the presidential bug. They've dubbed him Flip Wilson. Voters don't seem to care about that, so long as the change is in their direction. And what if they do? Will they vote instead for Flip Dole?

Historical footnote to all the above, from the American Political Network: "No sitting California governor has ever been elected president or vice president."

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