Wilson Leaps Into Ritual Race for N. H.


In the board game of presidential politics, Gov. Pete Wilson stepped Tuesday onto the square marked: “Start here.”

Wilson came to the New Hampshire state Capitol on a brisk and sunny spring day where he told a group of celebrity-seasoned local reporters that he would be the third transplanted California governor since the ‘80s to make an appeal to Granite State voters.

“This is the first of many appearances I will make in New Hampshire,” Wilson said, standing at a podium in a meeting room next to the governor’s office. “I intend to run as well as I possibly can here.” New Hampshire voters, he said are “conservative . . . my kind of people.”


Moments earlier, like every other major Republican presidential candidate, Wilson had paid a courtesy call to New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill. The meeting has become almost a rite of the Republican national campaign, like a player informing the referee before entering the game.


But this game is already well along through its early innings. Even with the New Hampshire primary almost 11 months away, Wilson’s appearance is considered late by many in state Republican circles. Wilson campaign officials could not identify a supporter in New Hampshire who could speak for the campaign’s chances here. And the governor’s fledgling campaign could only say that it plans to open an office in New Hampshire soon.

Local polls show Wilson almost entirely unknown in the state. Shortly before his appearance, a passerby in the state Capitol informed an associate about the day’s impending speech from “Gov. Steve Wilson.”

By contrast, Wilson’s main Republican rivals have invested months and money. Wilson got a reminder of the pressure to move fast when he arrived and found articles announcing that Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) will endorse Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas this week. New Hampshire GOP officials said the news was leaked the day of Wilson’s arrival as a warning to the governor.

Gregg, an ex-governor and the son of a former governor, is expected to turn over a significant Republican network to Dole. Dole has also won the support of former Sen. Warren B. Rudman. New Hampshire’s other sitting senator, Republican Robert C. Smith, has endorsed Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.

“He’s late, but not impossibly late,” said Tom Rath, a former state attorney general who is supporting former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander. “Wilson comes in here with a lot of expectations . . . because of the formidable resources he brings to the race. But he’s got to be careful that he’s not one of those candidates we all know whose strongest day is the one before they announced.”


Wilson hopes to jump-start his campaign with support from governors, including New Hampshire’s Merrill. “I would be honored to have Stephen Merrill’s support. There is a great deal we see eye-to-eye,” Wilson said.

But, Merrill, who was chief of staff to former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, did nothing to tip his hand. Following local protocol, he met with Wilson for about half an hour--as he has done with other leading candidates. He made friendly comments about Wilson to the local media--again, as he has done for others. But he declined to appear in public with his visitor except for a photo. Jim Rivers, his press secretary, said Merrill will endorse a candidate eventually, but not for months.

Wilson also showed some early uncertainty about New Hampshire’s idiosyncratic political ways. Asked by a reporter whether he is prepared to “take the pledge,” a reference to an anti-tax vow that is nearly sacred to New Hampshire conservatives, Wilson responded: “I don’t know what the pledge is.”


“Sounds like something to do with alcohol,” he joked. Wilson asked: “If it means a no-tax pledge--is that it? Then you bet.”

New Hampshire Republicans had predicted that taxes would become an issue for Wilson. The state’s last two gubernatorial campaigns turned into referendums on taxes, with Merrill winning big on an anti-tax platform, Rivers noted. “I’m sure (Wilson) will be asked the question. I think the people in this state have pretty well put out the word that they don’t want taxes.”

Earlier this year, Wilson proposed a state income tax cut. But during his first term, he also supported the largest tax increase in California history.


Wilson is likely to be haunted by a speech he gave in New Hampshire 19 years ago, Feb. 3, 1976, in which he campaigned for then-President Gerald R. Ford’s reelection by attacking rival candidate Ronald Reagan, who remains highly popular among Republicans here. Wilson charged then that Reagan’s campaign rhetoric did not match his record as governor in California, where he supported “three massive tax increases.”

Few New Hampshire Republican voters may remember the speech, but aides to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.)--another GOP hopeful--already have promised to remind them. One official of Specter’s campaign said the speech will show Wilson is not an heir to Reagan’s legacy “and he is a hypocrite.”

Wilson insisted that it would be wrong to suggest a rift between him and Reagan, who has made nine major appearances for Wilson campaigns.

After leaving here, Wilson headed to Boston for a meeting with another moderate Republican governor, Massachusetts’ William F. Weld. Today he plans to meet with New York Mayor Rudolph W. Guiliani and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

Wilson has left little doubt that he will formally declare his White House bid later this spring.