As he contemplates whether to launch a campaign for the White House, Gov. Pete Wilson has rejected recent warnings from religious conservatives and insisted this week that he plans a fight at the 1996 national convention to remove anti-abortion language in the Republican Party platform.
Wilson is among several prominent GOP leaders who have been trying to distance the party from the divisive abortion fights that have split their ranks in the past, focusing instead on the areas where there is widespread Republican agreement, such as proposals from the "contract with America."
If Wilson does run for the White House, one of the biggest differences between his campaign and the others taking shape is likely to be the combination of a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. This month, Massachusetts Republican Gov. William Weld indicated that he may not run if Wilson does because there is only room for one candidate to fill that philosophical niche.
"I still think that makes sense," Wilson said about removing the GOP platform's anti-abortion language. During an interview Thursday with The Times, Wilson added: "I think that is frankly an area in which the government ought not to be involved. . . . The position of its not being in there is in itself a middle ground between a strong pro-choice statement and a strong pro-life statement."
But the central question Wilson is struggling with is: Will he run?
During his reelection campaign last year, the governor denied it. Then he discouraged it. Then he hinted at it. Now, Wilson is in the final weeks of the biggest career decision left in his long and decorated political life. As a 61-year-old second-term governor with a string of four consecutive statewide election wins, has he run his last campaign or is he about to run the biggest one of his life?
Wilson has repeated the same response to that question in almost every interview he has conducted since January--"I have no new ground to break on that." But today, the governor is attending a showcase event for 1996 White House candidates in Aspen, Colo.
Wilson's audience for his luncheon speech will include some of the people most important to a presidential candidate because it is a gathering of the biggest political contributors in the Republican Party.
During the interview in his office, Wilson downplayed his stop in Aspen, saying that he only plans to be there a few hours and that he was responding to an invitation from Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour.
But Wilson also said he expects that some of the guests will ask during private conversations about his White House plans. And he said several prominent supporters have encouraged him to run. "I have thanked them for their interest and . . . when they say, 'Gee, I think you ought to do it' or 'I think you ought to think about it,' obviously I don't dismiss that out of hand," he said.
The handicapping of a Wilson campaign has been under way ever since the governor won a landslide reelection victory barely a year after being so unpopular in the polls that he was largely dismissed as a political cadaver. Recently, the interest in Wilson's plans has grown stronger with the withdrawal of some big-name GOP prospects: Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp and Dick Cheney.
In addition to being a tough campaigner, Wilson's strengths include the ability to raise as much money as the two top GOP contenders--Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. Geographically, he is well positioned as the leader of the largest state, which is likely to play a major role in picking the GOP nominee, especially because the 1996 California primary has been moved from June to March.
Many observers believe Wilson has been positioning himself for a national campaign since the beginning of the year. In his annual State of the State speech last month, he embraced many of the issues at the top of the Republican priority list in Washington--lower taxes, fewer government regulations and less welfare.
In Thursday's interview, Wilson gave hesitant and somewhat reluctant answers to questions about a possible campaign. But he spoke more extensively about the issues he expects to prevail in 1996 and the daunting task next year's presidential candidate will face.
In addition to the conservative warnings about his position on abortion--most recently stated last week by Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed--Wilson also addressed some concerns others have raised about his possible national campaign.
The governor's comments included:
* His prediction that President Clinton will lose his bid for reelection next year. That analysis could be significant in Wilson's decision because it might mean that his next shot at the White House would be nine years away. The governor said that "someday" he would like to serve in the White House. But he also did not rule out a campaign in 2004, when he would be 70.
* His opinion that the new and compressed schedule for presidential primaries--under which about 60% of the nation's delegates will be selected in February and March--could make the process easier for candidates who have enough cash. "It is probably easier if you are successful in raising the money," he said. "It's going to be more of a TV campaign than it has ever been. . . . If you've got 29 states in 34 days, you are not going to be very much in evidence (physically)."
* His response to some of the concerns raised during a recent meeting of the state Senate's Republican caucus, at which members said they feared a Wilson presidential campaign would jeopardize their agenda in Sacramento and could draw money away from GOP candidates for state office in 1996. Wilson said the caucus had an "exaggerated concern . . . based, to a degree, on some misapprehensions--both about my participation and my determination to move our agenda."
He also indicated that as a national candidate he might raise more money for state candidates than he could as governor. "I think someone who is a candidate for national office probably has the ability to raise funds for a local candidate," he said. Wilson noted that unlike under state law, federal candidates are limited to $1,000 contributions and that, as a result, he could direct some large donors to California races. "It's not money I could use," he said.
* The concern he shares with some Republicans that his election to the White House would leave a Democrat--Lt. Gov. Gray Davis--as the new governor of California. On Friday, in remarks to a YMCA youth conference near the Capitol, Wilson indicated that he might support an amendment to the state Constitution that would order a special election if there were a vacancy in the governor's office. "I think California is out of line with other states and with what I think is good public policy," he said.
The governor acknowledged that he feels some urgency to make up his mind about whether to run and, if he does, whether he will conduct a full campaign from start to finish or a strategy limited to key states.
More on Pete Wilson
* A reprint of the article "No More Mr. Moderate," the Los Angeles Times Magazine profile of Gov. Pete Wilson, is available from Times on Demand. To order, call 808-8463 and press *8630. Order No. 5502. $3.50.