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It’s Fun to Keep Presidential Rumors Alive

The word is out to the Wilson volunteers working the governor’s second inaugural bash this weekend. When asked if he’s running for President, they’re to answer, “We don’t know, but we sure hope so.”

Some rich donor buying two $125 ducats for the Gala starring Natalie Cole or picking up a $25,000 Patron Ticket Package may be just making small talk when inquiring about the governor’s plans, but he also may be pondering whom to back in 1996.

Keep the speculation alive. That’s the game. The more speculation, the more national attention. And the more political clout. Nothing like deference to a potential President.

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Pete Wilson is having immense fun with all this. Two years ago he was considered dead meat. A year ago he was just coming off a resuscitator. Now he’s seen as a possible leader of the free world.

“Does that titillate me? Why sure,” he says, with a little grin and light blush.

Does it increase your influence? I ask. “It may.” So, it’s probably to your advantage not to squelch this talk. “Probably so,” he agrees, still smiling.

Then he demonstrates again how a politician keeps such speculation alive. I ask whether he can foresee any circumstances in which he might enter the presidential primaries, and he replies: “I have no plans to do so.”

Plans can easily change.

*

But Wilson’s plans probably won’t. He’s likely stuck in Sacramento.

For one thing, he promised during his reelection race to serve a full four-year term. Asked about a possible presidential bid as he formally launched his campaign, Wilson quickly told reporters: “I’ll rule it out.” Being governor is “a career capper.”

Ditto the vice presidency: “If you’re not interested in the first spot,” he asserted, “why the hell would you be interested in the second?”

Of course, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton also promised to serve another term in Little Rock, but plans changed.

Wilson has been playing cute since his mini-landslide victory. He has avoided falling further into the absolutely-won’t-run hole. But he also indicated to NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he is under no delusions of grandeur.

Would you like to be President someday? the 61-year-old career politician was asked. “Someday? . . . I’ll worry about that at the end of this term (in 1999).”

Would you accept a position on the 1996 GOP ticket? “I’m not looking for it. I don’t expect it. . . .” But would you refuse? “Ask me when I’m offered it.”

You’re open to it? “No, I’m not really. I have wanted the job that I have and worked very hard to get it and I intend to do it--and to do it under very different circumstances than those that faced me in the first four years.”

Wilson whipped up more speculation last week, however, when he said, “I don’t necessarily rule out” being a favorite son candidate “if there’s an advantage to the state.” The advantage, he told the Sacramento Bee, could be “a little bargaining power” in breaking a deadlock between two potential nominees.

Under that scenario, Wilson would wave off the real candidates and win California’s GOP primary uncontested, then lead the biggest delegation to the convention. That California slate--providing one-fifth of the votes needed to nominate--will be especially valuable in 1996 because it will be chosen earlier in the primary season, on March 26.

But favorite sons are anachronisms. “You know what happens to favorite son candidates? They end up being laughed at. Favorite sons went out 20 years ago,” a national GOP strategist once told me.

That was in 1987 when then-Gov. George Deukmejian was thinking about becoming a favorite son. He rejected the idea, declaring people should not waste their votes on somebody who is not a serious candidate.

*

Wilson would have difficulty becoming a serious candidate for several reasons beyond his promise not to.

It will be a crucial period in Sacramento and insiders wonder whether the hands-on governor would be willing to delegate enough authority to keep things moving while off running for President.

There’s a problem of his abortion rights position being unacceptable to the religious right, although he might balance that with being tough on criminals, illegal immigrants and welfare moms.

But Wilson’s most obvious dilemma is that Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis--Jerry Brown’s former chief of staff--would become governor if the office were vacated.

Those inaugural revelers--and thousands more like them in corporate boardrooms across California--invested $24 million in a Republican’s reelection and will want their four years’ worth. They’ll probably get it. But first there’ll be a lot of fun speculation.


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