THE CAMPAIGN FOR GOVERNOR : ROBOPOL : Nobody Runs--or Works--Harder than Pete Wilson. But Can He Ever Win the Hearts of Californians?

<i> Ronald Brownstein is a Times national correspondent. Times researchers Doug Conner and Scott Fischer also contributed to this story</i>

ON A COLD February morning in San Diego, a slim blond man wearing a suit as gray as the weather stands behind a podium outside City Hall. Around him bustle younger men carrying folders and boxes stuffed with papers. Blue and white balloons rise from the podium and quiver in the stiff breeze. Reporters stand on the edge of the square with notebooks poised.

For Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, the man behind the microphone, this is in many respects a triumphant homecoming. On the third official day of his campaign for the governorship of California--a job he has coveted for more than a decade--he has returned to the city that he led as mayor from 1971 through 1982. All around him are reminders of his achievements over that long reign. New office buildings spike into the skyline. Local officials mill behind him deferentially.

All that is missing this morning is an audience.

Not more than a dozen people, including reporters, are listening as Wilson begins his speech. There are more police officers than spectators present. Trolleys run by; people step off, look for a moment at the podium, slow their step and then pass on. One man in a wheelchair looks quizzically at the balloons, the amplifier and the police and asks, “Is that Pete Wilson?” Then he rolls away without waiting for an answer.


If Wilson notices that he is speaking to an empty courtyard, he betrays no sign of it. He does not vary his delivery. No disappointment colors his voice. The subject for the morning is transportation, and Wilson sticks to it as stubbornly as if he were before a room of rapt highway engineers.

His remarks are reasonable, well-informed and entirely unarresting. Here in this empty courtyard a continent away from the capital, Wilson sounds as though he is still on the Senate floor. His is the cool and insular language of government, of official declarations and distant decisions.

This is Pete Wilson’s natural vernacular, for he is, above all, a creature of government. Except for a brief period as a young lawyer 25 years ago, Wilson has spent his entire adult life in politics--as a local Republican operative in San Diego, state assemblyman, mayor of San Diego and, since 1982, as a U.S. Senator.

That resume marks Pete Wilson as a pioneer among the new generation of career politicians who have come to dominate American public life during the era of the permanent campaign--the unflappable, technocratic young men so common in Congress and state houses today. In Wilson are evident all of this generation’s characteristic strengths. He is efficient at moving the levers of government, comfortable before the television camera, conversant with campaign media strategy, prodigiously successful at raising money. Extremely sensitive to the political center of gravity, he is difficult to box into an ideological corner and disciplined enough to avoid the mistakes that in this day of 30-second negative advertisements can end a political career overnight. With a loyal and efficient staff around him, he is the skilled and savvy manager of a diversified bicoastal enterprise: the political career of Peter Barton Wilson.

But if Wilson possesses all the skills of the modern politician, he shares the breed’s great weaknesses. Like so many of his contemporaries, Wilson has enormous difficulty capturing the voters’ imagination with bold initiatives or forging emotional bonds with his constituents, a point painfully dramatized in his adopted home town by the steady flow of people who push by him indifferently on this winter morning.

THERE IN MICROCOSM is the dilemma Pete Wilson faces as he begins his campaign for the state’s highest political office. After two decades in elected office, Wilson remains for many Californians an indistinct figure, a name on a ballot but little more, a blond blur. “People have intellectual knowledge of him,” says one California Republican political consultant, “but they don’t have emotional knowledge. You can’t win the governor’s race without both.”

Pete Wilson begins this campaign with formidable assets. While Attorney General John K. Van de Kamp and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein flay each other with negative advertisements, Wilson has no opposition for the Republican nomination. Though some conservatives carp about his support for a woman’s right to abortion and his tolerant views toward homosexuality, Wilson has behind him an enthusiastic party desperate to maintain control of the governor’s mansion during the redrawing of state legislative and congressional districts that will follow this year’s census. He is stockpiling one of the largest campaign treasuries ever accumulated in California.

But one rule in modern campaigns is that the higher politicians ascend, the more voters expect to know about them--not only about what they have done, but why they have done it; not only about their program, but their values and the experiences that shaped them. These are not mysteries that Pete Wilson, a man who prizes discipline over passion, spends much time pondering, even with close friends, even alone. But they may be the most important questions he faces on the road to Sacramento.

AT 56, WILSON offers himself as evidence that the unexamined life may be worth living after all. “This is not a man,” says his wife, Gayle, “who wakes up in the morning and says ‘How do I feel?’ He wakes up and says, ‘What do I have to do today?’ ” From boyhood, he has been brisk, efficient, directed, reluctant to inspect his own motivations and feelings, as though fearing that would slow him down. “I tried introspection once,” he says, “and I didn’t like it.”

Amid the chaos of the campaign trail, Wilson is smooth and cool and opaque, like a stone in a river. In speeches and during interviews, he is friendly and approachable, often witty in a dry way, but still fundamentally reserved. He always seems to choose his words carefully, even the profanity with which he occasionally underlines a point. Whether remembering his boyhood or analyzing economic policy, his voice is invariably level, his phrasing clipped and precise; even discussing his own life, at times he can sound like a neutral observer.

Wilson’s face reveals little about his thoughts. He has the bland good looks of a talk-show host. Behind a microphone, with his suit jacket typically buttoned and a deadpan delivery for one-liners, he is vaguely reminiscent of another Midwesterner, Johnny Carson. Wilson gives the impression of a man who never sweats. Emotionally, he is the rarest of men: a serene Type A.

Even as a young man, Wilson was serious, stolid, studious. He was born in Illinois and grew up in St. Louis, the son of James and Margaret Wilson. His mother, in her younger years, had been a model; his father, after selling fraternity jewelry, became an advertising account executive.

By the time he was in his teens, the family was prosperous enough to send him to the exclusive Saint Louis Country Day School, in whose intimate surroundings he excelled. In his senior year, Wilson served as president of the student council and literary editor of the yearbook, played on the varsity soccer and football teams (as an undersized offensive lineman nicknamed “Trapper”), acted and sang in class performances and won the school’s top prize for overall achievement. He was “just kind of an all-American Midwestern private-school type,” says classmate Richard Burgheim, now an editor at People magazine. “There was a certain student council type you’d resent, but that wasn’t Pete. He was gritty and popular, bright, but I can’t think of escapades. There was a sense of decorum about him.”

At the dinner table, Wilson, who has one older brother, learned lessons of engagement and service. From his father, who voted for FDR during the Depression but had since moored himself in the Republican Party, Wilson heard the local political debates and absorbed a conservative outlook without ever passing through a stage of rebellion against the older man’s ideals. “By and large,” Wilson says, sitting in the quiet of the bar at the Westgate Hotel in San Diego on a recent evening, “I thought he made pretty good sense.”

As a young man, Wilson cut the grooves that guide him to this day. His father often told him--perhaps a bit too pointedly, for the son remembers the words vividly decades later--that he had been endowed “with a reasonably good mind,” and through his career Wilson has worked with the special intensity of someone unsure he would measure up. (“My father was very gentle, but he was also pretty damn clear,” Wilson says now. “If he thought I had done something, whether it was at school or elsewhere, that really probably was not as good as it could have been, he would say, ‘Why didn’t you do better?’ ”)

Early on, Wilson put his faith in perseverance and effort, not flash or guile. As a junior high school student, he read condensed biographies of famous men and women night after night, “intrigued by people who had amounted to something,” looking for the secret of their success--and when he had finished his reading, what he concluded was that success came not from ephemeral sparks of brilliance or creativity but from the unglamorous work of setting goals and working to meet them.

That boy has grown into a man whose preferred form of exercise is the treadmill, who meticulously lays out his clothes every night for the next day, who pursues his agenda with a bruising single-mindedness and whose capacity for work is apparently bottomless. Other politicians may be smarter or more dynamic, but no one will outwork Pete Wilson.

ALMOST ANY MEAL with Wilson begins late--with him rushing in from the office--and if the dinner begins with talk about art or theater, it invariably winds back to politics and policy, the air he breathes. He mainlines paper and briefings. “Nothing will make him more unhappy,” says his former legislative director Ken Carpi, “than not to be prepared intellectually.”

Work does not entirely encompass Wilson’s interests: He likes to watch movies, browse in men’s stores (he is fastidious about his clothes), attend theater, perform on stage himself. In San Diego he sang creditably at charity events; in Washington, he and Gayle organize parties where friends gather behind a rented piano to belt out their favorite show tunes. The Wilsons live in a small townhouse on a quiet street a few blocks from the Capitol. In California, he lives in hotels; he maintains a condominium in San Diego but rents it out. At home, he stubbornly barbecues chicken for guests year-round, even if he has to stoke the coals in a ski jacket. His drink is gin with a twist, though he also has a taste for good wines. The bookshelves in his living room are filled with volumes of history and biography. On his refrigerator, someone has taped (and slightly misquoted) the Spinoza aphorism: “All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.”

Wilson’s pleasures are urban: Friends say it is difficult to imagine him spending a week somewhere watching the sun set over the mountains. His idea of high life is a movie with friends such as U. S. Court of AppealsJudge Laurence H. Silberman and his wife or a small dinner party with Dan Quayle (a friend from his Senate days) and former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency director Kenneth Adelman and their wives. His perfect vacation would probably be a week in London. (“He’s an Anglophile,” says one old friend.)

Not that he has much time for these pursuits. For Wilson, his work--the making of public policy, the political jostling-- has always had an overpowering allure. “He’s been a workaholic ever since I’ve known him,” says San Diego County Supervisor Susan Golding, who served on the city council near the end of Wilson’s tenure as mayor. “He lives his job. I don’t know when he isn’t working.”

Wilson’s private life has had to fit in the margins of his public life. In 1968, he married the former Betty Robertson, a woman 12 years older than he, with two children from a previous marriage. In 1981, they were divorced, and Wilson later told an interviewer that “the most important thing I learned (from my first marriage) is that I had a tendency toward spending too much time on the job.”

But rather than change priorities, Wilson found someone who would more willingly share them. In 1983, in a chapel in the Capitol building, he married the former Gayle Graham, an activist in civic and charitable affairs in San Diego, who also had two children from a previous marriage. (Wilson has no children of his own.) Friends say that Gayle Wilson enjoys the campaign grind as much as Betty Wilson disliked it; Gayle calculates that 90% of the couple’s time revolves around Wilson’s work.

If there is a touch of obsession in this punishing schedule, it springs from the restlessness of the perfectionist, not the zealotry of the ideologue. Unlike, say, Ronald Reagan, who entered politics fired by a sweeping ideological agenda, Wilson has never been powered by such combustible fuel. A desire to serve and be part of his times put him on the track, and a hunger for solving problems has kept him on it.

As a young man, politics did not seem like an obvious career to Wilson. When he graduated from Country Day, he choose Yale on the recommendation of his father and a teacher. He took a heavy course load in English literature and worked himself to exhaustion (his roommates would occasionally find him asleep in the library in the middle of the night), but he was an unremarkable student, although his performance picked up enough for him to make the dean’s list as a junior and senior.

Trapped in the library with his poets and novelists, Wilson took no interest in student government and seemed to want of his time at Yale mostly to be through with it. “I was eager to get out,” Wilson says. “I wanted to get out and do things. I wasn’t quite sure what, but I wanted to do them.”

Advertising, the law or even literature appeared the most likely choices. When he graduated, he wrote a semi-autobiographical novel--a love story involving a young Marine--imagining that he might make his living with his typewriter. At least, “That was my thought at the beginning,” he remembers. “I was less inclined to think that by the time I neared the end.” He decided the book was “thin on plot” and shelved it without sending it to publishers.

His father had always stressed to Wilson the importance of giving something back to the community. But it was not until after he served as an infantry officer in the Marines to fulfill his ROTC scholarship to Yale and enrolled, without much enthusiasm, in law school at the University of California at Berkeley that he began to feel confined by the course he’d set for himself.

“It could be very exciting to be a good trial lawyer,” Wilson says, recalling his deliberations. “What was missing, it seemed to me, was a sense of doing something for other people and a sense of doing something important. Not for the history books. I had no illusions on that score. Anybody who chooses public life does so without the illusion that in most cases he is going to make any lasting difference. You do it for yourself. . . . It is just a sense of satisfaction.”

The vague sense that the law alone could not fill his life led Wilson to join in Young Republican activities at Berkeley. After graduating in 1962, he went to work for the gubernatorial campaign of recently defeated Presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon. After Nixon lost to Pat Brown, the father of the man Wilson humbled two decades later, the young advance man moved to San Diego, where several of his best friends from law school had settled.

Almost effortlessly, Wilson was absorbed into the local Republican hierarchy. In his early 30s, Wilson was the sort of diligent young man--witty but not disrespectful, hard-working but not cutthroat--who reminded older men of themselves at that age, or at least what they imagined themselves to have been.

When Gordon Luce, the chairman and chief executive of Great American Bank, interviewed Wilson for a job as assistant director of Republican Associates of San Diego, an organization that recruited young professional men and women into the GOP, he found the fledgling lawyer “a studious young man, but a very interesting one. You knew that he had knowledge and was studying the issues and was a measured person in terms of the approaches he would take. You could see this was a person who did not shoot from the hip. There was substance to him.”

Wilson’s path opened before him. He ran the county Republican committee during the 1964 campaign. Finally passing the bar exam on his fourth try, he joined a law firm headed by the father of John G. Davies, a friend from law school, and began the grinding work of building a practice.

In 1966, when State Assemblyman Clair W. Burgener decided to run for a new state Senate seat created by redistricting, it seemed to him logical to encourage the “serious-minded” young attorney to seek the seat he was vacating. Wilson campaigned tirelessly and won.

Wilson swiftly learned his new business in the State Assembly, quickly moving into the Republican leadership; when the mayor’s job opened in San Diego in 1971, he saw opportunity in what had been an ineffectual and ceremonial post. He debated his opponent in the general election 46 times (by the end, Wilson says, “he was almost starting to give my lines, and I was starting to give him signals that would have been inappropriate in a crowd or on television”), won the job going away and skillfully built alliances on the City Council that gave him more influence over the city than any mayor in memory.

In 1978, after winning a convincing reelection as mayor, Wilson ran for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. But he was hampered by his opposition to the tax-cutting Proposition 13 as well as bitter feelings left by his support of President Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan in the struggle for the GOP presidential nomination in 1976. He finished a distant fourth. He recovered quickly enough to win a third term in San Diego in 1979, but by then he was aching for center court. Three years later, after taking a hard look at another race for the state house, he overcame a crowded primary field and then faced outgoing Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. for a seat in the U.S. Senate. As a candidate, Brown was the hare to Wilson’s tortoise: bold, controversial, unpredictable and inveterately interesting. But by then, Brown was for most Californians interesting in the way a car wreck is. Wilson brushed past him.

THE SENATE has long styled itself as the world’s most exclusive club. But the label is an anachronism. Senators now are far too busy to spend much time together strategizing or thinking, much less socializing. Today the Senate is less a club than a switching yard with 100 separate tracks.

Even in that atomized environment, Wilson is more of a loner than most. Personality explains part of that. In the Senate, Wilson has been “somewhat distant,” says Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., a former Senate Republican leadership aide and now president of the Hudson Institute, a conservative policy research company in Indianapolis. “He is controlled, and he is not into, oh, gratuitous affability.” One high-ranking White House official describes Wilson more succinctly as “a cold fish.”

But Wilson is set apart, too, by his solitary commitment to his own political agenda--even to the discomfort of his colleagues, his party or the White House, as demonstrated by his recent spat with presidential Chief of Staff John Sununu over Wilson’s breaks from the Administration on votes concerning trade policy and relations with China. Friends describe that doggedness as principled independence; critics see in it a pattern of calculated opportunism.

To the dismay of his colleagues, for example, Wilson perennially introduces legislation that would eliminate funding for the mass mailings senators send to their constituents and transfer the funds to an unimpeachably worthy purpose, such as the treatment of babies born addicted to cocaine. Most senators want to keep their newsletters but hate voting against crack babies; many of his colleagues consider it the worst form of grandstanding for Wilson to try to compel them to choose between the two.

In his defense of specific California interests, Wilson has been no less tenacious. That became apparent one gray morning in April as the senator careened through his crowded schedule. His day had a strong California bent--from his 8:25 a.m. appearance before a delegation of officials from California waterways and ports to his late-afternoon meeting with a group of visiting California farmers. In between, Wilson testified on behalf of California water projects before the Senate Appropriations Committee, introduced legislation to provide federal funding for trauma-care centers burdened by the cost of caring for illegal immigrants and carried the flag for California growers in the opening markup session for the 1990 farm bill at the Agriculture Committee.

Wilson went to the committee’s hot and crowded meeting room for a specific purpose--one that symbolizes the political strategy that has governed his time in the Senate. Wilson was there to defend something called the Targeted Export Assistance program. In the overall picture of the multibillion-dollar farm bill, the $200-million program merits barely a footnote. Its purpose is to help American farmers who have been injured by unfair foreign-trade barriers to market their products abroad. But that narrow purpose is of wide interest to California growers of everything from wine grapes to almonds.

Wilson’s major committee assignments--Armed Services and Agriculture--provide him with many opportunities to protect influential California constituencies. He lets few pass. His staunch support of the Strategic Defense Initiative and high defense budgets reflects his conservatism on national security matters--but it is also good politics in a state that receives more than 18% of all defense expenditures.

On the Agriculture Committee, where Wilson’s ideological compass is less clear, his parochial purpose has been even more distinct. Soon after Wilson attended his first meeting and sat at the end of the long table, years in seniority away from the seats close to power, he went to see then-committee chairman, North Carolina Republican Jesse A. Helms.

“He came to us and said, ‘It’s very important to me that California agricultural interests are well attended to. What can I do to get to the top of the table?’ ” says George S. Dunlop, the committee’s chief of staff at the time. And Helms, Dunlop recalls, gave Wilson the facts of committee life: If he supported the leadership agenda on the key votes, “the trade-off was that the chairman would deliver for California agriculture.” Wilson never became a major player in agricultural policy, but he supported Helms on the key votes--and for his loyalty won approval of the export-assistance program.

At the same time, Wilson reached out shrewdly to traditionally Democratic constituencies. In his successful 1988 reelection campaign against Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, Wilson received extraordinary financial help from normally Democratic executives in Hollywood, whose cause he carried against the three major networks in a legislative battle over control of lucrative syndication rights for television programs. Likewise, liberal Jews gave him an unusual degree of financial support--for Israel has few stauncher allies in the Senate. By the time the 1988 race began, Wilson’s skillful positioning during his six years in Washington had put him in a virtually impregnable electoral position.

FOR MCCARTHY’S advisers, the defections of Jewish and Hollywood donors were maddening. So was the campaign’s inability to persuade voters that Wilson’s hard-line views on national defense and support for the Reagan Administration’s budget cuts put him to the right of the state.

Wilson’s success in avoiding any ideological label has been frustrating his opponents for 20 years. Two decades ago, in the state Legislature, Wilson was usually considered a reliable conservative vote. But he saw the environmental wave cresting and broke with most conservatives by introducing legislation to create a commission to regulate development of the California coastline. Though environmentalists, according to contemporary accounts, considered his bill “the weaker” one under consideration because it left too much authority with local officials, Wilson eventually compromised with Democrats on a stronger measure that paved the way for the 1972 ballot initiative that created the California Coastal Commission.

When he ran for mayor in San Diego, Wilson displayed the same sense for emerging issues. Though he was the clear choice of the Republican establishment, which included the most powerful pro-development forces in the city, he accepted no contributions larger than $300 from developers and based his first mayoral campaign largely on a platform of controlling growth.

Wilson held to that policy against protests from construction unions and a spirited reelection challenge in 1975 largely financed by development interests. But his instincts gradually pulled him back from sustained confrontation with such a powerful constituency--just as, critics noted, he began courting support for the leap to statewide office. “He was with us (on the growth issue) in the beginning,” says U. S. Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego), who served on the San Diego City Council while Wilson was mayor, “but then when he began running for governor (in 1978), he moved the other way.” By the end of Wilson’s second term, the San Diego League of Conservation Voters accused him of “desert(ing) the environmentalists and managed-growth supporters who elected him last election.”

In Washington, Wilson has presented an equally complex profile. With surprising ideological fervor, Wilson quickly emerged as one of the Senate’s leading hawks. His skepticism of social spending was dramatically underlined when he was wheeled in on a hospital gurney while recovering from an appendectomy to cast the deciding vote on a 1986 budget bill mandating large cuts in domestic programs, including Social Security--a vote that inspired negative ads from McCarthy during Wilson’s reelection campaign in 1988.

But on other votes, Wilson resumed his characteristic search for the center. His hard line on defense, taxes and crime has been balanced by moderate positions on some social issues, and those dissents from Republican dogma have been balanced, in turn, by support of the White House on many of the toughest partisan votes. While supporting abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, Wilson also voted to confirm former U. S. Court of Appeals Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court when partisans of those causes bitterly opposed him.

On environmental issues, Wilson receives only mediocre overall ratings from national conservation groups. But he has resisted all efforts from the Reagan and Bush administrations to open the California coastline to offshore oil drilling. In March, he co-sponsored an amendment to the Clean Air bill that would have tightened auto-emission standards and encouraged greater use of clean-burning alternative fuels. The amendment, which some conservation groups considered the key environmental vote of the year, narrowly failed. But Wilson’s performance won high marks from green lobbyists.

Likewise, Wilson was the only one of the three gubernatorial candidates to support the 1989 Los Angeles ballot initiative to stop Occidental Petroleum Corp. from drilling for oil under the Pacific Palisades. “If it hadn’t been for Pete Wilson,” says Democratic Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, one of the initiative’s principal sponsors, “we wouldn’t have won. It’s just as simple as that.”

And yet Wilson failed to endorse the Clean Water ballot initiative in 1986, has angered environmentalists by resisting legislation to declare millions of acres of California desert as protected wilderness and opposes the “Big Green” environmental measure on the ballot this year.

So far in the gubernatorial race, Wilson has held to the same eclectic pattern. He has reinforced his conservative credentials by backing a criminal-justice ballot initiative that would speed trials, increase sentences for murder and create a new crime of “torture” that would be punished with life imprisonment. Typically, Wilson balances that with support for drug education, a new proposal welcomed by educators to deliver medical and mental health services to young people through the schools, a promise of expanded prenatal care and a call for the state to organize a volunteer effort to provide adult mentors to inner-city children.

But Wilson has been unclear on how he would pay for these initiatives other than to say that if voters approve the ballot measure loosening the Gann limit on state spending, economic growth would produce enough revenue to meet the needs.

Revenue is not the only subject on which Wilson has been tight-lipped. In these opening stages of the campaign, Wilson has given little attention to the issues just beyond the headlines: He has offered no thoughts on the challenges of integrating a state where minorities are growing into a majority of the population, for example, or on how the end of the Cold War may reshape California.

These broad questions about the state’s future, and others like them, have been overshadowed in Wilson’s campaign by the immediate--primarily the hammering sound bites on crime that have dominated all three of the candidates’ early dialogue with the voters. For all Wilson’s fascination with the details of public policy, many of his early appearances have given less a sense of a creative intelligence grappling with problems than of a politician reaching for applause lines.

IN MOST RESPECTS, Wilson presents a difficult political target. With his tough stance toward crime and taxes and more moderate positions on social issues and funding for education, even Democrats agree that Wilson is a good match for the state ideologically.

But in the exacting scrutiny of the governor’s race, Democrats believe Wilson may fall short on what George Bush calls “the vision thing.” As Bush did in succeeding Reagan, Wilson promises modest change but essential continuity with the administration of Gov. George Deukmejian. If voters want a sharper shift in course, and if the Democratic nominee appears to offer it, Wilson’s carefully crafted balance may seem inadequate.

As in the 1988 Senate race, whoever wins the Democratic primary will try to paint Wilson as a man who acts out of political expediency and is too close to the economic interests, such as agriculture, that have supported his campaigns. Wilson raised and spent almost $15 million to hold his Senate seat in 1988 and will probably raise a similar amount in the gubernatorial race. And though special-interest political action committees provided only one-sixth of Wilson’s overall campaign treasury in 1988, he received more money from PACs than all but one other Senator facing election that year.

Wilson, who bristled when McCarthy accused him of bending toward corporate contributors on environmental issues, insists that those donations have affected his votes “not at all.” But, he adds, “You can’t put yourself in a position where you are penalizing people because they supported you.” As scandals in Sacramento and Washington inspire more cynicism about elected officials, Democrats are certain to pointedly ask, “Who does Pete Wilson represent?” as Paul Maslin, a pollster for Attorney General Van de Kamp, puts it.

Wilson’s record in San Diego is also certain to receive more intense scrutiny than ever before. Most local observers agree that Wilson’s overall impact on the city was positive, but there were controversies, such as his shifting attitude toward growth.

More emotional was a tragedy in the suburban neighborhood of Tierrasanta, where a large private housing development was built in the early 1970s on the land previously used as an artillery range by both the Marines and the Navy.

In 1973, a resident of the area warned Wilson’s office that her children had found old bombs while playing in the canyons around the homes. A few weeks later, Wilson wrote the Army asking them to “sweep . . . the area.” Several months later, the Army informed Wilson by letter that it had recovered several dozen rounds of spent ammunition but urged “that due caution still be taken in the area, as earth movement (either by heavy equipment or natural erosion) may possibly bring further ordnance to the surface.”

Over the next decade, residents continued to find shells near their homes. But no additional cleanup was undertaken. Then in December, 1983, two young boys were killed when an old artillery shell they had found went off. The families of both boys brought suit against the developers and the city, which eventually settled for $2.5 million, the largest liability payment it had ever made.

In November, 1987, Wilson was called to give a deposition in one of the cases, testifying that he thought that because of the sweep, “the danger had been eliminated.” Mostly, though, Wilson testified that he could not recall almost all details about the case; 34 times he responded that he could not remember specific actions or decisions.

Today, Wilson says of the case, “I would have to say in hindsight, because a child died, not enough was done, I suppose. But at the time, I think that the mayor and the City Council, who had asked that the survey be undertaken, were probably entitled to rely on the assurance that was given.”

But Democrats may question that defense and use the case to challenge Wilson’s portrayal of his years in San Diego as an unblemished success.

EVEN THOUGH Pete Wilson is not a man who openly discusses his hopes and aspirations, he leaves no doubt that he very badly wants to be governor. After his drubbing in the 1978 GOP primary, he quickly began preparing for another run in 1982--only to switch to the Senate race when Deukmejian entered the gubernatorial field. And even on the morning after his election to the Senate, he wistfully told a group of reporters that if he had more than one life to live, he would want to spend one of them as governor of California.

Wilson has enjoyed many things about the Senate, and could probably stay there for many years if he does not become governor. But the demands of a collegial body--the unpredictable schedule, the chaotic barrage of disparate issues--constantly frustrate this orderly man. As governor, Wilson anticipates, he would have far more control over his personal schedule and political agenda. “Even in the much more limited circumstances of being mayor of San Diego, when I was presiding over the City Council--which was damn time-consuming--even then the rest of your time was yours to do with as you choose,” Wilson says. “If you wanted to have a daylong briefing on something, by God, you just did it.”

That freedom, friends say, provides one powerful incentive for Wilson to trade in Washington for Sacramento. Many political observers note also that almost any future Republican presidential nominee would welcome on the ticket the governor of a state that could have as many as 54 electoral votes after the next reapportionment. It is, in fact, not difficult to imagine that if Wilson wins the governorship, he could eventually envision himself playing more than a supporting role. “There are three jobs that are sort of parallel to him,” says Otto Bos, Wilson’s longtime aide; “mayor, governor and President.”

Those may be good reasons for Wilson to seek the governorship, but they are not necessarily reasons for the voters to reward him with it. No matter whom the Democrats nominate, they are bound to argue that only ambition is driving Wilson to seek this job just two years after the state returned him to Washington to perform another.

Wilson’s friends insist it is not personal ambition impelling him so much as the belief that he could shape the state more in Sacramento than in the Senate. Wilson recently told one interviewer that a senator may be just one of 100, but “as governor, you are one of one. The buck does stop with you.”

For this confident man who has always been drawn to solving problems, that is an enormously attractive prospect. “I have never seen any arrogance in him,” says his friend Judge Silberman, “but neither is there self-doubt.” Spending time with Pete Wilson, you get the sense that, issues aside, he wants to be governor because he believes he would be better at it than anyone else around. “Part of vision is being realistic,” he says. “Anyone can have sugarplums dancing in their head, but you’ve got to make it happen. And to make it happen, you’ve got to be tough-minded and realistic.”

That kind of steady, dependable competence--the faith in sweat over vision--has always been Wilson’s strength. But the experience in the 1988 presidential race of another quietly competent politician, Michael S. Dukakis, shows the risk of offering the public only competence without burning conviction. Some Republicans fear that Wilson could stumble on that same terrain--particularly if he faces Feinstein, who more easily displays emotion than either of the men in the race. “Pete is very smart,” says one Republican congressman nervous about the race, “but when you’ve been in politics this long, if you’re not passionate about anything, you come off as just rote.”

For any politician, that perception could be fatal. If Pete Wilson is to avoid it, he must persuade the voters that he has a vision of where California must go--that his campaign is propelled by a purpose more urgent than his personal advancement. In this race, Wilson will have to show endurance, fund-raising skill, political savvy, timing and cool; but all that may be less important than showing his passions.