The State : What Ron Unz Tells Us About Pete Wilson--Rough Sledding Ahead

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

Is Pete Wilson reelectable?

The question blares through the barrage of attacks directed at the governor by his Democratic rivals and by conservative Ron Unz, a 32-year- old entrepreneur who seemingly emerged out of nowhere to challenge Wilson in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

When it's all over, Unz may prove little more than a footnote. But right now, his campaign can shed some light on the perils Wilson might face in the fall.

Last year, when Wilson's poll ratings were at a historic low, press and pundits began composing his political obituary. Then Wilson's fortunes reversed, aided by a positive perception of his response to the Northridge earthquake, slight movement in the state's turgid economy and what looked to be a clear path to the GOP nomination while the Democratic Party was in disarray.

Wilson's Democratic rivals even allowed him to take control of the campaign agenda and maneuver the debate onto GOP-friendly turf: Voter anxiety over the economy was replaced by voter fear of crime. Front-runner Kathleen Brown, in particular, played right into Wilson's strategy, trying to out-tough ex-Marine Wilson on her weakest issue. That's when the governor began to look reelectable--or, at least, not unelectable.

Then things changed again.

Although national unemployment continued to decline last month, California's jobless rate jumped up. Seizing the state's apparent resistance to economic recovery, Brown began seriously challenging Wilson for issues control.

And then came Unz.

In 1990, intraparty harmony helped Wilson conserve campaign resources till the fall, when he went up against Dianne Feinstein, who had come off a bruising and expensive primary. Wilson eked out a narrow general-election victory. But with Unz in the race, he will not emerge from the primary unscathed.

Unz, a self-styled "Reagan Republican," says he's running to replace a governor who is out of step with the party's "mainstream." Along the route of his quixotic journey, Unz has become the latest poster boy for the GOP right wing and an eclectic assortment of Wilson foes.

Highly visible around the Unz campaign are the GOP war horses who have been snubbed by Wilson over the years. Also in for a piece of the action are political operatives who have been shut out by the close-knit band of strategists--derided by one GOP insider as "Pete Wilson, Incorporated"--who have long guided Wilson's career. And speculation is widespread that the Christian right is using Unz as a stalking horse for their political agenda.

Absent a miracle or a major gaffe, the million dollars or so Unz has personally invested in his campaign thus far won't be nearly enough to knock off an incumbent in a statewide primary. Nonetheless, when the Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls file their next campaign finance disclosure reports, they ought to list Republican Unz as a major contributor. He has run the toughest Democratic campaign of them all against Wilson.

Unz's radio and TV ads challenge Wilson's anti-crime credentials; they attack the governor for signing the record 1991 tax increase, claiming that the higher taxes deepened the state's recession and cost more jobs and businesses. Such criticisms would sound hollow coming from the mouths of Democrats.

Wilson supporters dismiss the Unz campaign as a minor nuisance perpetrated by a gaggle of malcontents. But Unz's candidacy shows that there is a personal element, as well as an ideological one, in the GOP opposition to Wilson. And the governor has to find a way to counteract both if he wants to prevail in November.

In a Los Angeles Times Poll taken in late March, Wilson was viewed unfavorably by 49% of registered voters. And 59% of independent voters, the group that will likely constitute the prime battleground this fall, were unfavorably impressed. Worse yet, 50% of the electorate and 57% of independents disapproved of Wilson's job performance. That's heavy baggage to carry into the general.

It is a basic political axiom that, when an incumbent runs for reelection, the race inevitably becomes a referendum on the incumbent. Ask former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio. In the wake of a record tax increase, Democrat Florio's approval ratings plummeted to 18%. By shifting the debate away from the economy and taxes, and aided by some campaign blunders by GOP challenger Christine Todd Whitman, Florio almost won.

But as TV reporter Michael Aron explained in "Governor's Race," his chronicle of the 1993 Florio-Whitman race, "When people got into the privacy of the voting booth, personality came into play. . . . A politician who had generated enormous personal goodwill might have been able to survive the tax anger and the bad economy, but Florio generated respect in some quarters, admiration at best, and never love."

A California Republican similarly assesses Wilson's candidacy. "Pete's greatest failing," this analyst observed, "is that he doesn't have anybody who says 'I love Pete Wilson.' "

Is Wilson reelectable? The primary campaign has raised that question. The general election will answer it.*

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