A Wilson gamble on abortion that might not pay off Threatening floor fight at the GOP convention could backfire in 2000

Campaign 1996

Republican Convention

August 15, 1996|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- At the opening of national party conventions, it's traditional for the host state governor, especially if he is of the party holding the affair, to extend an official welcome. Not Pete Wilson, not this time.

Instead, the California governor who has put himself conspicuously at the forefront of the abortion-rights forces at the Repub- lican National Convention here, declined the honor, saying that his appearance would distract from the welcoming speech of San Diego's Republican mayor, Susan Golding.

Wilson also declined, along with fellow failed presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, to accept an offer from the convention managers to tape a brief video to be shown in the hall.

In both cases, Wilson's decision may have been wise.

Ever since Wilson was summarily slapped down last week for trying to soften the anti-abortion language in the party platform, the governor has been in eclipse. Now, the question is: Can he resuscitate his political fortunes and reclaim his place as a national political figure?

After delegates routinely approved Monday the platform retaining stringent anti-abortion language, Wilson was booed and heckled at a news conference on the convention floor. He seems to be regarded by many delegates as a failed suitor at the wedding who caused a disturbance for the bridegroom during the ceremony.

Threatening a floor fight on abortion was seen by many here as strange behavior for the man who became Bob Dole's California campaign chairman shortly after his own campaign crumbled.

Returning to California, he had to face the political fallout of having broken a 1994 re-election pledge to serve out a new four-year term as governor in order to run for president, and voters were not about to forget it.

Breaking his word is, in the view of prominent Republicans in the state, still the chief rap of voters against him.

Martin Anderson, a key figure in the Nixon administration and adviser to Ronald Reagan and now Dole, recalls that Reagan also made a mild bid for the 1968 Republican nomination after less than two years in Sacramento, but was able to charm his way out of public disapproval.

"Reagan had a way of saying, 'Gee, I'm sorry,' and people liked him even better," Anderson says. But not so with Wilson.

With this sour taste lingering, Anderson says, Wilson has worked diligently in Sacramento to keep other 1994 campaign promises, including a tax cut for business, intensified prosecution of accused statutory rapists, welfare reform and education aid targeting students in the state's lowest performing schools.

His decision to put himself at the forefront of the abortion-rights camp here has triggered renewed talk about his motive. One school of thought, the more charitable, is that Wilson has a long-standing record in support of abortion rights.

"I don't think he's posturing," says Stuart Spencer, a veteran California Republican political consultant.

But others speculate that Wilson is looking to the year 2000 and another presidential bid if Dole loses in November, and wants to establish himself as the clear leader of the party's abortion-rights forces, hoping that the influence of the Christian right in GOP ranks will wane.

Wilson insists that his abortion-rights position clearly reflects "the mainstream" of the party as evidenced by voters' responses to exit pollsters during the presidential primaries last spring. Thus, he suggests, he was doing Dole a favor by trying to move the party toward a more tolerant attitude on abortion rights.

But Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council and one of the leaders in the successful defense of the 1992 plank calling for a constitutional amendment barring all abortion, says: "Wilson realizes that if he going to have a chance in 2000, he has to put himself out front in competition with the other pro-choice governors."

Bay Buchanan, campaign manager for her brother Patrick, says: "The pro-choice governors realize they are hitting a glass ceiling in this pro-life party."

If Wilson or any of the others hopes to be the nominee in 2000, she says, Dole would have to lose and the party would have to turn away from its staunch opposition to abortion.

Wilson's public threat of a floor fight on abortion, she says, "was a gamble. In order to be successful in four years, he has to break the pro-life hold on the party. But he lost here."

If he wants a political future after he finishes his second and last term as governor, she offers, "I'd say to him, 'Go for an ambassadorship or the Cabinet.' "

Pub Date: 8/15/96

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