As conservatives cheered him with fervor, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm put a direct challenge to Gov. Pete Wilson Sunday by declaring that he will contest the 1996 California Republican primary election, whether Wilson chooses to run for the presidency or not.
The 52-year-old Gramm scored something of a coup by delivering a full-blown campaign speech to about 1,500 delegates at the closing session of the three-day Republican state convention.
As much as they could, both the governor's office and the state party leadership had tried to keep presidential jockeying out of this weekend's organizational convention while the 61-year-old Wilson ponders whether to enter the presidential sweepstakes.
Another likely contender, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, deferred to their wishes and stayed away. Brian Lungren, Dole's California strategist, said this was meant to have been "Pete Wilson's convention."
But Gramm, after essentially inviting himself, managed to steal the spotlight during the main business session with a tough stump speech that repeatedly brought cheering Gramm supporters to their feet.
One such instance was when Gramm declared: "I am going to run in the California primary no matter who runs for President."
After scoring a surprisingly strong reelection victory last fall, Wilson has been pondering whether to run an all-out campaign for the nomination, to be awarded at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego--Wilson's hometown.
Wilson's dilemma is sticky. If he runs and wins the nomination, he has to give up the coveted California governorship to a Democrat; Lt. Gov. Gray Davis automatically would succeed to the state's No. 1 job for two years.
There also has been speculation that Wilson might mount a favorite-son candidacy that would give him control of the massive California convention delegation as a bargaining tool.
In the past, popular governors often were able to freeze other candidates out of their state primaries by running as favorite sons. With all the state delegates in the governor's control, he or she might be able to wield considerable power by brokering a deadlocked convention.
Gramm seemed to put an end to any such favorite-son possibility for Wilson in the new early California primary, scheduled for March 26, 1996.
Californians have sought to boost their influence in the presidential nomination process by moving the primary up from the first week in June. Even so, because some states have advanced their primaries even earlier, some experts believe it is possible for a candidate to sew up the nomination before March 26, thus rendering California meaningless again.
The experts also acknowledge that if two or more candidates could split the votes cast before March 26 evenly enough that there is no apparent winner, then California's winner-take-all primary could be the king-maker.
At the Sacramento Convention Center Sunday, about a third of the 1,500 delegates carried Gramm signs and chanted "Gramm in '96." Even more joined in applause and cheers for the senator.
The most boisterous outbursts came when Gramm vowed to support the death penalty, and when he declared that U.S. troops should not serve in trouble spots abroad under United Nations command.
In a straw poll conducted Friday and Saturday by a conservative Young Republican group, Gramm won 56% of the 551 votes cast by delegates and official guests. Wilson had 14% and Dole 12%.
Wilson allies suggested the poll was skewed by the fact Gramm was winding up his formal presidential announcement tour in Sacramento. They also argued that the makeup of the convention was considerably more conservative than California's total GOP population.
Indeed, a poll published in the San Francisco Examiner over the weekend had Dole backed by 30% of those surveyed, Wilson 24%, and Gen. Colin Powell 17%. However, Powell has not indicated whether he will consider running and, if so, in which party.
Conservatives argued that while their total numbers may be smaller statewide, they tend to be highly motivated fund-raisers and party workers.
Greg Hardcastle, president of the California Republican Assembly, a conservative volunteer organization, said, "These people do man phone banks. They walk precincts and provide a lot of arms and legs and dialing fingers."
At the least, Sunday was an emotional coup for Gramm. The Wilson camp made no effort to mount a counterdemonstration.
Brian Lungren, Dole's western campaign manager, grumbled that he was not told that Gramm had been put on the convention agenda until it was too late for him to arrange a Dole appearance.
The more moderate Wilsonians did manage to stymie efforts to generate a floor debate on a resolution that opposed any Wilson candidacy because, if he won, he would be automatically succeeded in the governorship by the Democratic lieutenant governor.
Earlier in the day, Republican national Chairman Haley Barbour declined to say whether he thought the succession problem might be a fatal obstacle to a Wilson candidacy. But he seemed to reject the notion that Wilson was not well-known enough nationally to field a viable campaign.
"He has a tremendous amount of stature and prestige in our party," Barbour said.
Wilson had his day on Saturday, as he drew hearty cheers and applause from his supporters for his announcement of support for a proposed state ballot initiative that would eliminate most affirmative action programs in California.