Wilson Travels to Plead His Case to a Wary Public : Politics: Governor picks up pace before reelection bid. He says if he can get his message out, voters will approve.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

It may not look it, but Pete Wilson is back on the campaign trail. Here in a Hollywood sound stage, a few feet from the faux brick and wood set of a public television show, the governor of California is scrunched in a plastic chair, debating his difficult present and his questionable future.

Things wouldn't be so bad, he says, if only the state's television stations still had correspondents in Sacramento. Then he could march down the hall from his office, stand in front of the cameras in the Capitol pressroom and plead his case with the state's voters. Maybe then they would understand, maybe then his worse-than-anemic 15% positive job performance rating would rise, maybe then people would see that he has done his best in tough times. Maybe then he would at least have the chance to persuade them.

It is pure Wilson, the accent on mechanics and the concurrent optimism that if he could just get out his side of the story, well, things would be different. Isn't it possible, he is asked, that people understand his side of things? Isn't it possible that they are angry anyway and tired of bad times, and would fix the same blame on him even if he did have access to the state's television cameras?

Sure, he admits.

"In hard times, when people don't know the facts, they understandably are unhappy with their economic distress and there's a natural tendency to think that whoever is at the top is responsible," Wilson said. "So there's a certain amount of scapegoating. But I think basically people are fair-minded.

"I think they're decent, and what we've found . . . is that when people do know the facts, number one, they're shocked, and number two, they're pleased."

There it is, the kernel of hope on which Pete Wilson is basing his try for reelection: People are fair, and once they hear his side of the story, they will come around. It is an effort that now begins in earnest, even if the first-term governor will not announce his reelection bid for many months.

Freed of the albatross of state budget negotiations, and with a few days of rest under his belt, Wilson has come to Los Angeles to plead his case. An Eastside news conference in the morning, a taping for public television in the afternoon, an interview squeezed in before he moves on--the Wilson who has come to Southern California this day is upbeat, optimistic, definitely not cocky, but a politician who seems keenly aware of the distance he must go to win reelection and confident he can get there.

The pace of days like this will hasten in the coming months, for this is Wilson's window of opportunity to persuade voters that he understands the state's problems and is the best person to solve them. Over the next several months, expect to see the governor in the state's living rooms more often as he moves around California pleading his case.

Words such as beleaguered and underdog might as well be part of his legal name, so often are they attached to it. In less than three years as governor, he has watched as economic recession, drought, arctic freezes, earthquakes and a host of natural and man-made calamities confronted the state.

Even on a recent Friday, the first day in which Wilson was able to venture to media-saturated Los Angeles after the long budget siege, his luck ran cold. The governor was here, but so were South African civil rights pioneer Nelson Mandela and the first woman U.S. attorney general, Janet Reno. Even in the biggest city in his state, Wilson came in a distant third.

Somehow, the travails have seemed not to daunt him.

"Well, I was thinking the other day about the underdog position--and clearly in the polls I am in that position," said Wilson, who, surveys have shown, would lose to either of two Democrats--Treasurer Kathleen Brown or Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi--if the election were held today.

"It's hardly the first time. When I announced in August of '81 that I was going to enter the Senate race, I was in fourth place, and slowly inched up. And largely because we succeeded in telling people a story they did not know. That's what we've got to do again."

Much of Wilson's optimism stems from his nearly untrammeled record of success in politics--two terms in the Assembly, 12 years as mayor of San Diego and eight years in the U.S. Senate before his election as governor. But if Wilson was sometimes an unknown able to catapult to victory by dint of hard work, he has now in some quarters come to personify bad times in California.

The gist of the story that Wilson says has not been understood is this: In the face of virtually unprecedented economic misery, the governor has sought to protect two prerogatives, funding for law enforcement and for education, while paring state government. If he has been tough as nails with the Legislature--and, his opponents would say, with many groups dependent on state support--it is because people have failed to grasp the reality of California's slide into the economic abyss.

Tough will become a familiar word to Californians if Wilson's advisers get their way. Invariably, they describe him as a tough governor who has presided over tough times, the implication being that because times are still tough, his toughness is still needed.

Asked if his message will be, to put it bluntly, that he has made the difficult calls while his opponents stood on the sidelines, Wilson answers brusquely.

"Well," he says, "that's the fact."

At first blush, the campaign he is waging for reelection bears a strong resemblance to 1990, when Wilson tailored himself as a "compassionate conservative."

It explains why on that Friday, Wilson parked himself in the middle of an Eastside street, a 7-year-old girl by his side, to decry the outburst of drive-by shootings that have injured or killed children like her.

The rhetoric was straight out of a politician's anti-crime handbook: The governor accused the shooters of "random, senseless butchery;" the shooters were alternately "cowardly thugs" and "murdering cowards." But the imagery that came through the television screen was meant to be two-pronged: Pete Wilson hates crime and likes kids, the latter underscored by his firm rejoinder that "children are not a partisan issue."

Wilson's advisers and partisans say he is looking forward to the chance to sell himself to the public.

"He does his best when he's feeling a little underdogish," said George Gorton, who has run several of Wilson's campaigns and will head the 1994 effort. Gorton said that in a recent conversation, Wilson raised the precedents of George Bush--who polls said could not lose the presidency--and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who polls said could never win the 1990 Democratic nomination for governor. As history showed, he lost the presidency and she won the nomination.

"A year and a half out, you look at the polls for what they are--a message of frustration," Gorton said.

Wilson's determination--and the relative looseness with which he is publicly handling his unpopularity--was evident recently when he showed up at a Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce luncheon honoring former Mayor Tom Bradley. Wilson had been scheduled to attend a lunch in San Diego that day. But he came to the Bradley event, he told the crowd, after "we flipped a coin and Tom lost."

The audience--hundreds of the mayor's confidants and acquaintances--was surely not a natural Pete Wilson crowd. But from the beginning of his speech, they were laughing at his self-deprecating jokes and nodding appreciatively at his repeated praise of Bradley.

The governor lauded Bradley for handling "an impossible job."

"And I have a special empathy for people who have impossible jobs," he said drolly, drawing hoots and applause from the audience.

For most of his remarks, Wilson could have been talking about himself as much as the mayor, about his upcoming struggles as much as the mayor's past battles.

"Vision is fine," he said. "But if you have the tenacity, if you have the steadfastness of purpose to hang on, and to see to it that your dreams come true . . . that is something extraordinary."

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