Does Pete Wilson Have Eyes On A Bigger Prize?

In Bellflower, Calif., hundreds of the Republican Party faithful cram a dingy storefront campaign stop to behold their political miracle worker. Just months ago, trailing by as much as 22 points in his bid for reelection to the state's governorship, Pete Wilson seemed condemned to the Home for Also-Ran Incumbents. Now, on the eve of the election he will win handily over State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, the 61-year-old Wilson sounds very much like a man with one more campaign left in him.

But which campaign, exactly? Wilson's rhetoric tonight is aimed squarely at Washington--and at Bill Clinton. The President's charge that racism is behind the Wilson-backed California initiative that would deny health and education funds to illegal immigrants, the governor tells his legions, "is just another reason for California to distrust him." For weeks, Wilson has lambasted the Administration for the state's ills--defense cutbacks, rising crime, and a shortfall in funding for dealing with immigration.

THE RIGHT ISSUES. Meet Pete Wilson, stealth Presidential candidate. Impressed by his dramatic showing over Brown, political analysts and GOP heavies now see 1996 White House potential. "He could certainly be a credible, fist-tier candidate," says Republican consultant Charlie Black, a 1992 George Bush adviser.

Wilson says he isn't interested. "Take me off your lists," he avers flatly. "I have a job." Yet the chief executive of the nation's most populous state, with access to 22 million potential voters and big corporate bucks, remains an object of intense speculation in Washington. Many pols see the middle-of-the-road Wilson as a viable compromise if the party splits between conservatives Dan Quayle and Phil Gramm and social moderates such as Jack Kemp. His stated reluctance now, says analyst and Wilson confidant Kenneth L. Khachigian, doesn't mean "Pete might not change his mind."

Although short on charisma and a dreary speaker, Wilson has a genius for riding the right issues. His stand on the anti-illegal-immigration Proposition 187, some analysts believe, could be a powerful calling card in a Presidential bid two years from now. The measure, capitalizing on deepseated concerns about economic security, passed by a 3-2 margin. And many analysts believe that widespread resentment of immigrants could spark similar measures elsewhere. Wilson's support could help him move "perceptually to the right" of fellow moderate Bob Dole, says GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio.

But hardcore right-wingers will never accept Wilson as one of their own. They still resent his approval of $7.5 billion in tax hikes to balance the state budget in 1991--a move that prompted a challenge in this year's primary from right-wing businessman Ron Unz. And Wilson openly defied conservatives by pledging to keep abortion out of the GOP's 1996 platform.

Lacking solid conservative support, Wilson's path is unclear. He could follow the Ronald Reagan model: Continue to govern the state, as he promises, until his term ends in 1998 and then run in 2000. Or he could test the waters in the hugely important California primary, moved up in 1996 to March from June, hoping to play power broker. "With 20% of the delegate votes, that puts him at the table," says David Keene, chairman ef the American Conservative Union.

His draw within the GOP's Bush wing and among Westerners makes Wilson an attractive Vice-Presidential choice on a ticket headed by Dole or General Colin L. Powell, some insiders say. But they doubt that the head of a state with the world's seventh-largest economy would take the No. 2 job. All that Clinton-bashing may be so much rehearsal for a run at the Oval Office.

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