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Wilson Airs Ads to Test Campaign Themes : Politics: Television spots shown in Fresno portray him as a tough governor forced to make decisions that have angered the public.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Gov. Pete Wilson’s nascent reelection campaign has begun limited airing of television commercials this week that portray him as a tough governor who has been forced to make--and suffer from--unpopular decisions for the long-term good of California.

The key ad being run only on Fresno stations is a 60-second spot titled “Leadership” that opens with news film of anti-Wilson demonstrations. An announcer declares: “Burned in effigy, pelted at speeches, the Capitol under siege--his moves to change California have angered many.”

Then the Republican governor comes on screen to say: “Change is painful, but when you’ve made it, you’re going to have a much better California.”

“He inherited a deep financial crisis,” the announcer says, but still managed to cut the budget more than any other governor anywhere and worked to attract jobs by reforming welfare, workers’ compensation and the regulatory process.

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“If you’re going to expect people to follow your lead, you’d damn well better lead by example,” Wilson says.

The ad, plus a 30-second spot promoting Wilson programs for children, will test potential themes to be used when the Wilson reelection effort gets fully under way early next year, said George Gorton of San Diego, who is running the Governor Pete Wilson Committee and is expected to be Wilson’s campaign manager.

Although the claims made in both ads generally are accurate, the text in some cases follows the time-honored political tradition of telling only part of the story.

The leadership commercial boasts that Wilson cut state spending $5 billion in two years. It neglects to say that nearly $4 billion of that $5-billion reduction was made possible by shifting property tax revenue from local governments to relieve part of the state’s obligation to public schools.

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At another point, the ad notes that Wilson cut his own pay. But the announcer does not tell viewers that the governor still earns $114,000 annually, having shaved 5% from a salary that was boosted 41% just before he took office.

The airing of the ads, and the promotion of them to reporters in Burbank and Sacramento on Monday, were seen as further attempts by Wilson strategists to demonstrate that the governor has surmounted the problems that plunged his opinion poll figures to record depths this year.

The leadership ad seeks to tell potential voters about the things Wilson has managed to do in his first 2 1/2 years in office on the theory that not many of his achievements got through the rhetoric of controversy emanating from Sacramento, Gorton said.

“The fight over the budget, the fight over workers’ comp was so much bigger than the media coverage of the success of them,” added Gorton, who has been involved in Wilson elections since 1971 and ran Wilson’s 1990 campaign for governor against Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

The leadership ad is similar to Feinstein’s “grabber” commercial, designed to define her persona and toughness early in the 1990 campaign. The ad propelled her toward the Democratic nomination, her strategists believe.

That ad showed news footage of Feinstein taking the reins of government in San Francisco in 1978 by announcing the City Hall shooting death of Mayor George Moscone.

“Forged from tragedy,” the announcer said, “her leadership brought San Francisco together.” A later version of the ad also showed Feinstein facing protest from fellow Democrats who booed her at the 1990 state party convention for taking the unpopular position--in that forum--of supporting California’s death penalty.

The scenes in Wilson’s ads were filmed at events called to protest Wilson’s veto of a gay rights bill that the governor claimed would be bad for California business.

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“That’s a real example of what we are saying,” Gorton said. “It was a well-intentioned bill which was harmful to the economy. He stood up, vetoed the bill and got a lot of flak for it. And then when they got the bill right, he signed it.”

Gorton said he picked Fresno for the test because the air time in that market is inexpensive and the area will provide a good cross-section of voters for determining the impact of the commercials via opinion polling. Gorton declined to predict when such ads might be run in the far-costlier Los Angeles television market.

The Fresno ads will cost less than $50,000 to air, Gorton said. They do not urge people at the end to vote for Wilson, the aides said, because there is no formal campaign at this point.

Wilson got some criticism Monday from one of his expected rivals, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, a Democrat. She said at a news conference that Wilson was wrong to cut funding for the bipartisan Commission on State Finance, which she chairs.

Brown speculated that Wilson is trying to wipe out the panel because it is the only independent watchdog that evaluates the tax revenue projections published by the governor’s Finance Department. She said she would try to keep the commission going by slashing its staff and selling its publications and research data.

“We can play politics, or we can be sound fiscal managers,” Brown said.

A Finance Department spokesman said Wilson wants to eliminate the commission because its job is being done by the department and the independent legislative analyst.


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