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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / REPUBLICAN CONVENTION : Stressing GOP Unity, Wilson Backs Prop. 187 : Governor gets warm reception at state party gathering as he formally endorses the immigration initiative and predicts sweeping Republican victory.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Gov. Pete Wilson, warmly embraced by leaders of a once-reluctant California Republican Party, declared Saturday that he had fought like a “junkyard dog” to turn California around from economic recession, violent crime and the fiscal burden of uncontrolled illegal immigration.

“And that’s what I have done,” Wilson said as he made his case to the Republican state convention for a second term and formally embraced the No. 1 cause of the Republican conservatives with whom he has battled over most of his 45 months as governor.

Wilson officially endorsed Proposition 187, the voter initiative that seeks to cut off free health care, public schooling and other state-paid benefits to illegal immigrants. The governor, facing a Democratic challenge from state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, has fought without success to get the federal government to honor its commitment to reimburse California for the cost of such services, estimated at from $1.8 billion to $3 billion a year.

Wilson belittled the border control efforts of the Clinton Administration--including those proposed Saturday by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno--and labeled Brown as “Bill Clinton’s chief apologist in California.”

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And he predicted that passage of the immigration measure would reverberate in Washington and elsewhere with the same force as Proposition 13, the property tax initiative of 1978.

“Proposition 187, the Save Our State initiative, is the 2-by-4 we need to . . . finally force Washington to accept its responsibility for illegal immigration,” Wilson said in a speech that was interrupted by applause more than 30 times.

Many of the 750 attending the luncheon stood and clapped when Wilson announced his endorsement of Proposition 187. They briefly chanted, “Four more years.”

Wilson said he feels the electricity of a potential GOP victory that he said could reach well down the ticket and into the Democratic strongholds of California’s U.S. House delegation and the state Legislature.

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“We have the best chance to make this a Republican victory the like of which we have not seen literally since Ronald Reagan swept in every constitutional officer but one,” Wilson said.

That was in 1966, when Wilson, then a 33-year-old former advance man for Republican President Richard Nixon, was elected to the state Assembly from his adopted hometown of San Diego.

Independent political observers said Wilson’s address was one of the most skillful political speeches of his career.

“I don’t know when I’ve ever seen him as relaxed and as clearly focused in laying out simple themes quickly and clearly,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior analyst for the Center for Politics and the Economy at Claremont Graduate School.

John Stoos of Sacramento, one of Wilson’s vocal critics from the party’s conservative wing, said the sense of victory has brought the party together under Wilson, although the unity may be only temporary.

“In 1992, all we smelled at the top of the ticket (with then-President George Bush) was big trouble,” said Stoos, vice president of the conservative California Republican Assembly. “1992 was a big lesson.”

Stoos added that he thought the Wilson camp had “gone out of its way” to avoid agitating conservatives.

After serving as San Diego mayor and winning election twice to the U.S. Senate, Wilson ran for governor as a moderate in 1990. He proposed preventive government programs such as health screening for school pupils and prenatal exams for poor pregnant women. He backed abortion rights and gay rights and espoused environmental causes such as a ban on offshore oil drilling, angering conservative party leaders.

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His speech Saturday was conservative and tough: Tough on crime and “dangerous thugs,” tough on welfare recipients, unyielding on the immigration issue, and scornful of the Democratic Administration in Washington and the Brown candidacy.

Wilson vowed to cut off welfare to those who won’t work, saying, “Welfare should be a safety net, not a hammock.”

He called Brown “callously insensitive” to the people’s desire for a crackdown on violent crime.

And he said the Clinton Administration’s “tinkering” with border control measures was inadequate.

“Anything that falls short of securing our borders and providing full reimbursement for California’s costs for illegal immigration just ain’t enough,” he said.

The speech also marked Wilson’s ascendancy as the leader of a united party that is buoyed by the smell of victory Nov. 8--a dramatic turnaround from the GOP’s longstanding internal battles over social issues and the sense it was headed for disaster in the 1992 election.

In the past, Wilson often shunned the role of titular party leader to avoid becoming embroiled in its bitter and emotional wars. He did not even attend the pre-election state convention two years ago, saying his time was more profitably spent out in the field working to elect GOP legislative candidates. His aides also wanted to keep him from being caught up in another bitter clash over the abortion issue.

There is residual anger among conservatives, who generally dominate the state party apparatus, about Wilson’s positions on abortion and gay rights and his approval of higher taxes to deal with the state fiscal crisis in 1991.

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The governor still supports a woman’s choice on abortion, but has taken a no-new-taxes pledge and scaled back his support of rights for gays. Environmental issues generally are absent from his 1994 campaign.

On Saturday, Wilson echoed the optimism of most of the 1,500 delegates and visitors to the convention about Republican election chances this year, buoyed by the growing unpopularity of President Clinton and the inability of Brown to articulate issues that will draw votes to her.

The Wilson campaign has tapped into public anger over crime and the outflow of state money to illegal immigrants at the same time the state has had to cut back spending for education and other programs benefiting the general population.

Wilson acknowledged that his decisions had not always been popular, but he said the people did not elect him in 1990 to “put my finger to the wind” and yield to popular opinion.

“I think they sent me there because they knew I would fight for what I believe in and fight like a junkyard dog to turn this state around,” he said.

He summarized his achievements in just five paragraphs, including “the toughest crime package in the history of California,” job creation, rebuilding Los Angeles area freeways in record time after the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake and challenging Washington on illegal immigration.

Steven Glaser, a Brown campaign aide, disputed Wilson’s successes, noting that the money used to rebuild the freeways came from the federal government and that the Clinton Administration “has created millions of jobs, in every state but California.”

Wilson must take responsibility for the failure of job creation efforts in California, he said.

On immigration, Glaser said Wilson’s Senate sponsorship of legislation on behalf of California agricultural interests “brought more than 1 million illegal immigrants into California and he has abandoned them in a politically expedient way in order to serve his reelection campaign.”

Times staff writer Amy Wallace contributed to this story.


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