Wilson Says He Has 'a Duty' to Run for President : Election: Governor announces formation of panel to explore bid. Aides say move is first step toward formal declaration within two months.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Gov. Pete Wilson said Thursday that he has "not just an opportunity, but a duty" to campaign for President of the United States because he has helped California make changes that are needed throughout the nation.

Surrounded by a small group of supporters in Los Angeles, the governor took his first public step into the 1996 White House campaign by announcing that he will form an exploratory committee to promote his candidacy.

Wilson aides said, however, that the governor is "dead serious" about waging a national campaign and that the exploratory committee is a first step before a formal declaration within two months.

"We have not only had an agenda for change, we have a record of making change," Wilson said of his tenure in Sacramento. "I'm convinced, because of that, we have not just an opportunity, but a duty to bring that same kind of change to the entire nation."

Wilson said that under his watch, California has proven to be a national leader by passing the first "three strikes" sentencing law aimed at repeat criminals, voting against public services for illegal immigrants with Proposition 187, scaling back welfare costs and cutting the state budget.

"Too much of that change was needed because we had to undo or cure the practices of government," Wilson said. "Too often, I think government simply loses its way. I think they have lost track of the bedrock values upon which we built this country."

Wilson steps into the presidential sweepstakes as a serious contender for the Republican nomination, largely because of his political roots in the nation's most populous state and his record as a prolific fund-raiser. That status was reflected Thursday at the governor's announcement, with dozens of reporters and camera crews from around the country crowded into the room.

The event was carefully crafted to emphasize the themes of the campaign and avoid some of the controversies swirling around Wilson's interest in the White House. The governor was surrounded by a round-table of supporters from a variety of interest groups who took turns lavishing praise on Wilson's work in Sacramento. Then Wilson declined to answer questions from reporters.

Wilson's presidential ambition has been criticized by some Republicans who complain that he will abandon his job as governor at a time when the GOP is fighting to pass a long list of reforms--notably a 15% income tax cut that Wilson proposed this year.

Some also complain that if Wilson wins the election, he will be succeeded in the governor's office by a Democrat, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. The governor's supporters have launched a ballot drive for a measure that would order a special election to fill a vacancy in the governor's office.

Wilson's aides acknowledged that the governor's campaign is getting a later start than those of some of his Republican rivals. They said he will spend the next several weeks hiring a campaign staff to wage a start-to-finish national campaign, not a limited schedule that some observers had speculated about.

Wilson leaves today for a six-day trip to the East Coast, where aides indicated that most of his events will be private. He is scheduled to attend three fund-raisers in New York, Washington and Boston to help retire a debt left over from his 1994 reelection campaign.

The governor's staff said it is possible that Wilson will make a visit on Tuesday or Wednesday to New Hampshire, site of the nation's first presidential primary. On Thursday, New Hampshire Gov. Stephen E. Merrill said he expected Wilson to visit his state next week.

Merrill was favorably quoted about Wilson in Thursday's editions of the Manchester Union-Leader, the state's major newspaper. "Pete Wilson has shown himself to be a proven vote-getter," Merrill said. "He will bring a strong message into New Hampshire."

Dan Schnur, a Wilson spokesman, said Merrill has not endorsed Wilson but is one of a number of GOP governors who could be expected to make laudatory comments about Wilson and his presidential potential.

Wilson also appealed to the anti-tax reputation of New Hampshire voters in his comments Thursday. The governor portrayed himself as a vigorous opponent of taxes, condemning government for forcing taxpayers to finance programs for illegal immigrants and welfare recipients.

To underscore the theme, Wilson's announcement was made at the headquarters of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., a grass-roots group dedicated to the late co-author of California's landmark 1978 property tax rollback measure, Proposition 13. As he spoke, Wilson faced a wall that included a giant black-and-white photograph of a smiling Jarvis shaking hands with former President Ronald Reagan.

Despite Wilson's comments, the tax issue looms as a potential controversy for his campaign, as it has been in California. Immediately after Wilson's announcement Thursday, Democrats charged Wilson with being a fraud because he opposed Proposition 13 and, as governor in 1991, supported a $7.5-billion tax increase.

"He is here today as a born-again tax cutter who forced on the people of California the biggest tax hike in the state's history," said Bill Press, chairman of the state Democratic Party, who waited for reporters outside of the Wilson event. "We know Pete Wilson in California is the Pinocchio of politics."

Press said Democratic activists would hound Wilson throughout the country, appearing at events in New Hampshire and Iowa to critique the governor's campaign claims. "Our warning to Pete is: Pete, if you decide to go all the way, it isn't going to be a free ride," Press said.

Joel Fox, president of the taxpayers association and the host of Wilson's announcement, agreed that Wilson was wrong to oppose Proposition 13 and to support a state tax increase. But he said the governor has regrets about both decisions, and he has since proposed an income tax cut.

"His compass is definitely pointing pro-taxpayer, and we've always enjoyed a strong relationship with him," Fox said. "We opposed his tax increase a few years ago, but he's come back to say, 'That was the biggest mistake of my governorship.' "

Wilson's comments spanned a number of popular Republican themes--attacking government excess, calling for fundamental change, fighting for taxpayers and returning to the "bedrock values" upon which the country was founded.

He also outlined a message that his aides dubbed "the politics of right and wrong," a theme that Wilson is expected to emphasize in his campaign. Wilson said government has become unfair by rewarding people who violate its rules and penalizing those who obey the law.

"Some things are right--and some plainly are wrong," Wilson said. "It is wrong to reward illegal immigrants for violating our borders. . . . It is wrong to engage in reverse discrimination, giving preferences . . . not on the basis of merit but because of race and gender. And it is certainly wrong to have a welfare system discouraging work.

"What is right," he said, "is to reward and honor people who work hard, pay their taxes, obey the law and raise their children to obey the law."

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