Trying to dispel widespread rumors that his troubled presidential campaign might fold, Gov. Pete Wilson ceremoniously unveiled a new campaign banner at his election headquarters Thursday and declared himself a candidate for the White House.
The announcement seemed to reverse a statement issued by the campaign earlier this week in which Wilson aides said the governor would wait until after the state budget is passed sometime this summer to formally declare his candidacy.
Wilson's staff quickly sought to clarify that the governor's Thursday remarks, made during a telephone conference call that reportedly involved more than 500 supporters nationwide, were not intended to officially launch the presidential campaign. Instead, the aides said, Wilson wanted to update his supporters and change the name of his presidential exploratory committee, formed in March, to simply the Wilson Presidential Committee.
For his part, Wilson sounded unequivocal. Still speaking in a hoarse and squeaky voice after throat surgery two months ago, the governor said he will appear next Thursday on the "Larry King Live" television talk show to reaffirm his campaign for a national audience.
"First of all, let me make clear that the symbolic act that we just performed is more than symbolic," the governor said after cutting a ribbon to unfurl a red-white-and-blue "Pete Wilson for President" banner. "Let there be no doubt in anyone's mind--I am running for President."
After stopping for applause from about 40 supporters packed in his headquarters, Wilson continued: "There have been a lot of rumors to the contrary put out by people who have engaged in wishful thinking. And we'll have more to say about this when I give a declaration of candidacy next Thursday on the Larry King show."
Aides said the governor still plans to make his formal declaration later this summer in a multi-state tour over several days. At that time, they said the governor will speak at length about his reasons for entering the race, his qualifications and his plans for the country.
"There shouldn't be any reason for confusion," campaign spokesman Dan Schnur said. "Today, the name of the committee was changed to reflect the fact that, as he's said all along, Pete Wilson intends to run for President. Next week, on 'Larry King Live,' he's going to reaffirm his commitment. . . . Then, at some point this summer, he will make a formal announcement of candidacy."
Wilson aides said many presidential candidates have scheduled their formal campaign announcements weeks after they have clearly indicated their intention to run. But Wilson's remarks still caused some surprise, in part because they came just days after his campaign signaled a slower schedule.
"If he said on Monday he's going to wait until after the budget and then he makes this definitive statement, it gives the impression he is being extemporaneous," said William Schneider, an independent political analyst in Washington. "It suggests there was some doubt in some people's minds. . . . 'I am running, don't panic.' That's what it sounded like to me."
Wilson's official presidential announcement has been a difficult subject for the campaign because he has repeatedly been forced to adjust his plans to accommodate his much slower than expected recovery from throat surgery April 14.
Doctors at first said the recovery would take just one week. But it has been so slow that he was unable to give a public speech until some brief remarks Tuesday--more than eight weeks after the surgery.
In the nearly two months of silence, Wilson's campaign has largely been left out of national media coverage of the presidential race and doubts--fueled by his critics--have seeped into his base of supporters. But in the next few weeks, Wilson strategists are hoping to jump-start his campaign before the governor becomes pinned down in Sacramento in the highly partisan battle looming over the state budget.
Although his voice is not fully recovered, Wilson is scheduled to make a campaign swing starting this weekend that will take him to Florida, a major battleground in the Super Tuesday slate of Southern primaries, and Iowa, site of the nation's first presidential caucus. Wilson also told supporters Thursday that he plans to open a campaign headquarters in Iowa.
After appearing on "Larry King Live" on Thursday, Wilson is scheduled to travel to Colorado, Texas and New Hampshire, scene of the first presidential primary.
"When we finish a little state business and when the voice is in better shape, we will actually be out on the hustings, and we hope to see the kind of press coverage which the other candidates have enjoyed," Wilson told his supporters. "But in the meantime, we wanted to let you all know what has been going on. We have been raising money, getting endorsements; we have been very busily organizing."
The governor was joined at the campaign headquarters by his wife, Gayle. "I am really looking forward to coming to all parts of the United States to meet all of you," she said.
He also introduced a number of prominent supporters throughout the country who joined the telephone hookup.
William Weld, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, told Wilson supporters that he will raise at least $10 million for the campaign on the East Coast. Weld listed 10 states in which he said he has made appeals for Wilson supporters.
"The reception around the country is that the folks are not yet enthused by the people who were out there before Pete," Weld said.