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GOP Truce Lets Wilson Keep Sights on Democrats : Politics: Annual convention is bereft of the usual infighting. Governor attacks Kathleen Brown’s death penalty position.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After nearly three years of battling internal GOP discord, Gov. Pete Wilson luxuriated Saturday in delivering a freewheeling attack on Democrats without having to worry about guarding his flank against dissidents from within the state Republican Party.

Wilson was the undisputed star of the show as he delivered a luncheon address to delegates of a state Republican convention that was just the way his political strategists wanted it--so bereft of the usual infighting that it was almost boring.

It was obviously good news to George Gorton, Wilson’s reelection campaign manager, as he briefed delegates on plans for winning Wilson another four years in the governor’s office in November.

“How the worm has turned in the last few months,” Gorton said with a grin.

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“It was just a few months ago that reporters were asking about Pete Wilson having a primary and Kathleen Brown not,” Gorton said.

Today, Wilson is unopposed for renomination as the Republican candidate for governor in the June 7 primary while state Treasurer Brown is engaged in what appears to be a protracted and contentious battle with Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi for the Democratic nomination.

Gorton and others have insisted that Garamendi might be the tougher opponent in the fall campaign, but Wilson declined to comment on such speculation during a meeting with reporters after his speech.

In the address, he focused his attack on Brown, and particularly her declaration that she would be just as tough as Wilson in enforcing the death penalty as governor even though she is personally opposed to executions.

“When it comes to the death penalty,” Wilson said, “neutral is not good enough.

“You need someone who has the conviction to carry out the people’s will, not just simply because it is a law in which you believe,” said the governor, who has allowed California to execute the first two criminals in a quarter-century.

A governor has complete discretion in granting a condemned convict clemency out of mercy or for any other reason, he said. He added that he could not understand how a chief executive who in good conscience opposes capital punishment could fail to seize the opportunity to spare a life.

“I don’t think there is the certainty that Kathleen Brown would have us believe that she would carry out the law,” he said.

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Brown has insisted repeatedly that she would do so, and would have made the same decision as Wilson in allowing the execution of Robert Alton Harris, the first person to be executed in California since the 1960s when Ronald Reagan was governor.

Garamendi supports the death penalty and is also making Brown’s position an issue against her in his primary campaign.

As Gorton noted, there were repeated rumblings from within the GOP’s right during the last two years of a conservative Republican rising to challenge Wilson’s bid for a second term.

In past conventions, conservatives berated Wilson for agreeing to a $7-billion tax increase in the 1991 budget crisis and for his support of abortion rights and gay rights.

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Wilson was tarred and feathered in effigy by Young Americans for Freedom during one convention. There were attempts--eventually aborted--to condemn him for supporting the tax increase. And scores of delegates noisily stomped out of another meeting when Wilson’s handpicked U.S. Senate successor got up to speak.

The governor’s personal popularity had plunged to record low levels for a modern California chief executive as the state fell into recession and lost hundreds of thousands of jobs. Meanwhile, some political pundits were ready to virtually anoint Brown as the Democratic nominee and even as governor.

But Wilson’s popularity has been inching back up. The conservatives’ anti-Wilson ardor cooled as the governor said he regretted the 1991 tax increase and as he muted his public support for social issues such as abortion rights and gay rights.

No serious challenge to Wilson materialized from within the GOP. Meanwhile, to the delight of Wilson’s advisers, Garamendi pursued his quest for the Democratic nomination, raising the prospect of the sort of primary fight that has left Democrats fractured and battered going into previous general election campaigns.

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The Republicans’ zeal for internal warfare appeared to fade after the GOP suffered a drubbing in California’s 1992 presidential and two U.S. Senate races. The delegates replaced conservative leaders in key party posts with moderates who were more supportive of Wilson.

The governor noted that GOP fortunes seem to be on the rise in California with victory in six of seven special legislative elections in 1993.

“All these victories are causing some of our Democratic friends to become unnerved. . . . They’ve got to see there’s a Republican tide running.”

Times staff writers Amy Wallace and Daniel M. Weintraub contributed to this story.

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