After failure, Wilson interested in running for presidency again

May 22, 1998|By JACK W. GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

SACRAMENTO -- Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, with eight months left in his second term as leader of the nation's most populous state, is resisting the lame-duck label. Pushing an aggressive agenda of education and other reforms, he intends to leave his mark when term-limitation pushes him out the door in January.

"I'm not coasting," he says at the end of a long day of revising the state budget to reflect programs he intends to be his legacy. "I love the job. If it was in different circumstances and the law allowed it, I'd probably be seeking a third term." As it is, he says, he wants to build "momentum for change" for the man he hopes will be elected in November to succeed him, fellow Republican Dan Lungren, the state attorney general.

Mr. Wilson has just succeeded in placing on the November ballot an initiative that would mandate class-size reductions for the early elementary school years that he believes could not be pushed through the Democratic-controlled state legislature. He also is looking at a proposed end to the state auto tax as a boon to taxpayers already given a tax cut under Mr. Wilson.

Such legacies reflect more than the retiring governor's love of his home state. As a man who has spent virtually his whole adult life in elective office, and had a disappointing experience in a brief run for president during the last race, he is openly considering another White House bid in 2000.

"I would like to," he said. "If the resources turn out to be available, I would enjoy it. It would be a whole lot different, more pleasurable." He has in mind, for one thing, the unfortunately timed throat surgery that left him with a raspy voice -- and false rumors from rival camps that he had throat cancer. The rumors helped dry up campaign contributions, forcing him to withdraw early.

If there is a next time for him, Mr. Wilson says, he will be able to emulate "my dear friend who was governor and then president after he left office [in Sacramento]" -- Ronald Reagan. "It's really impossible to run a major state and also run for president . . . I was shortchanging it last time, trying to campaign on weekends."

His task was complicated, he says, by the fact that his lieutenant governor, who took over in his absences, was a Democrat -- Gray Davis, now leading the polls in his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Mr. Wilson says he never really contemplated resigning as governor to become a full-time presidential candidate, in large part because Mr. Davis would have become governor.

When Mr. Wilson quit that first presidential run, it was widely speculated that his California financial base was weakened because supporters were angry about his breaking a re-election pledge to serve out his second term if elected. He says now he ran because he was so strongly urged to make the race on grounds that as a more moderate conservative he was the only Republican who could beat President Clinton.

At the time, California was still struggling its way out of recession, and thoughts of another Wilson try for the presidency seemed fanciful. But along with the rest of the country, the state has rebounded economically to Mr. Wilson's political advantage. Nevertheless, even running full time, he would enter the Republican competition under the shadow of his first failed bid, as well as controversial stands on some issues.

The most conspicuous of these is his continued posture in support of abortion rights in a party that remains committed in its platform to oppose women's choice in the matter. Mr. Wilson insists, however, that a candidate with his views could be nominated.

Many Republicans, he says, who are like himself "pro-choice but not pro-abortion are not blind to the lessons of recent history." President George Bush wasn't re-elected, he said, primarily because of the lagging economy but also because he rigidly held to the party's anti-abortion line. As a candidate again, Mr. Wilson said, he would seek to channel the thinking of Republicans more into how they can "affect and mollify behavior to cause the numbers [of abortions] to decline in a partnership of responsible parenting."

He notes that this message received a good reception when he conveyed it last fall to a meeting of the Christian Coalition, pointing out that Republicans share common ground on many matters in the realm of family values.

Mr. Wilson says he'll probably decide whether to run for president after the November election at which his successor will be chosen. Right now, as he approaches his 65th birthday, he sounds like a man who needs the encouragement of campaign money to go ahead.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 5/22/98

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