At least 20 Republican state lawmakers have signed letters endorsing Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm for President, turning their backs for now on Gov. Pete Wilson's potential presidential bid.
Lawmakers working for Gramm said half of the Senate's 16 GOP senators signed the Gramm endorsement, as did 14 of 38 Assembly Republicans. Two of those Assembly members pulled their names off after Assembly Republican Leader Jim Brulte cautioned them against endorsing early.
The Gramm endorsements--generally by the most conservative legislators--follow a weekend state Republican convention in Sacramento at which Gramm proclaimed that he would win the California presidential primary a year from now.
Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh did not react to the Gramm endorsements except to say "the governor is not a candidate." Wilson said Monday in San Diego that he would make a decision soon.
Even as some California lawmakers endorse Gramm over the leader of their own state party, major California Republican political donors are encouraging Wilson to enter the race. The governor, buoyed by his landslide victory in November, has been making high-profile appearances around the country, and national pundits have lavished him with attention.
In California, however, some GOP officeholders are growing impatient.
"I was hoping the governor would have made some kind of announcement, but he hasn't. I have to assume he is not running," said state Sen. Maurice Johannessen (R-Redding), who is circulating the Gramm letter among Senate Republicans.
The decision by at least 20 California legislators to endorse a Texan so early in the campaign appears to underscore Wilson's weakness among conservatives in his state.
"Gramm can win it," Johannessen said. "He has walked his talk. He is a real leader. He cuts through the politics and talks to the people where they're at."
In the lower house, Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R-Chico) circulated the Gramm endorsement letter.
Some Republicans said Brulte privately gave them a warning that Wilson would be displeased if they endorsed someone other than the governor.
In an interview, Brulte said he was merely urging that they not act prematurely, given that the primary is 13 months away and not all the candidates are in the race.
"I just suggested to them that unless they signed a letter, and were absolutely committed, it was premature to be involved in a presidential campaign," Brulte said.
On Monday, as Richter spoke to a Times reporter, Republican freshman Assemblyman Peter Frusetta of Tres Pinos buttonholed Richter outside a committee room, telling him he wanted his name removed from the Gramm endorsement.
"Brulte scared me," Frusetta told Richter.
Later, Frusetta explained that the word scared was "perhaps a little strong."
"Brulte reminded me of doing things just to please other people," Frusetta said. "I sometimes do that without really thinking. I knew Bernie wanted me to sign it. I did it just to make him happy."
Neither Johannessen nor Richter would release the letter, saying that was up to Gramm. Johannessen would not name the senators who signed the endorsement letter.
Richter identified the GOP Assembly members as Jim Morrissey of Santa Ana, Doris Allen of Cypress, William J. (Pete) Knight of Palmdale, Bruce Thompson of Fallbrook, and Tom J. Bordonaro Jr. of Paso Robles.
He also named George House of Hughson, Barbara Alby of Fair Oaks, Tom Woods of Shasta, Brett Granlund of Yucaipa and David Knowles of Placerville. Howard Kaloogian of Carlsbad also signed the letter. Paula Boland of Granada Hills pulled her name off.
Knight left open the possibility that he might switch to Wilson if the governor enters the race. But several Republicans who endorsed the Texan said they would not support a Wilson presidential bid. The reason, they said, is that if Wilson were elected, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, would become governor.
In contrast to the sentiment among some Republican lawmakers, a group of 100 corporate executives met in Los Angeles last week and encouraged Wilson to run. In San Francisco on Monday night, Wilson got a similar message from the Northern California arm of the same group. The executives represent the backbone of Wilson's California fund-raising operation.
Sources said the organizations were created to help raise money for Wilson's 1994 reelection and remain intact. In addition to the possibility of a presidential race, the group could help the governor retire a $2-million debt left over from his 1994 campaign and his second inaugural gala.