Wilson Kicks Off Presidential Campaign : GOP: He assails illegal immigration with Statue of Liberty as backdrop.


California Gov. Pete Wilson ceremoniously kicked off his presidential campaign’s announcement tour with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop Monday, seemingly inviting protesters to complain that his White House bid is antithetical to the nation’s most famous symbol of hospitality.

Speaking from a decorated podium on the edge of New York Harbor, Wilson said the statue represents the promise of a rewarding life in America and the social values that have been lost or damaged due to moral decay and intrusive government programs.

The Republican governor also put his own twist on the statue’s historic inscription--"Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Said Wilson: “This implies a promise to refresh the tired, to release the poor from the bonds of poverty and to empower the huddled masses to stand tall. Today’s reality--whether for new citizens or native born--falls far short of the promise. The tired have escaped foreign tyrants only to suffer the oppression of federal tyrants. Too many of the poor have traded poverty for welfare dependency. The huddled masses still yearn to breathe free. Instead, they’re imprisoned by the fear of violent crime. . . . “


Wilson’s speech at Manhattan’s Battery Park attracted an estimated 200 supporters and about 50 protesters, who chanted, “Liberty is not a prop,” as he spoke.

Wilson’s campaign has sparked intense opposition from civil rights activists because of his high-profile opposition to affirmative action and his support last year for California’s Proposition 187, the ballot measure that, if upheld by the courts, will halt an array of public benefits to illegal immigrants.

“I think his appearance at the Statue of Liberty is the ultimate hypocrisy,” said California Democratic Party Chairman Bill Press, who appeared at the event to criticize Wilson. “I’ve seen him do a lot of brazen things, but this takes the cake.”

For their part, Wilson campaign officials seemed almost cheered by the protesters. They said they expected that staging the event near the Statue of Liberty would provoke such a response. And they anticipate a political benefit by showing that Wilson has been more active on the lightning-rod issues of affirmative action and illegal immigration than other GOP presidential candidates who have not drawn the same protests.

“Protesters make the distinction,” said Wilson’s campaign manager, George Gorton. “They’re legitimately protesting somebody who does something the others just talk about. And that’s the essence of our message.”

Wilson’s speech launched a five-day national tour scheduled to include New Hampshire, Florida, Atlanta and Iowa before ending Friday in Los Angeles.

It comes about five months after Wilson first indicated he would seek the White House. Since then, he has suffered through a series of controversies and bad luck.

The bad luck struck when Wilson lost his voice for two months due to throat surgery last April. He still is not fully recovered and apologizes to many of his campaign audiences for the squeaks and cracks that interrupt him.

The controversies have included charges that the governor lacks a strong core of beliefs because he has changed his position on such issues as affirmative action, which he once embraced; that he broke a promise made to voters during his reelection campaign not to run for President, and that he may have employed an illegal immigrant maid while he was mayor of San Diego about 17 years ago.

The slow start has put pressure on the campaign to demonstrate soon that it will be able to compete with the top candidates in the GOP presidential race, particularly Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan.

Craig Fuller, Wilson’s campaign chairman, took note Monday of a recent poll showing support among GOP voters for front-runner Dole slipping to about 35%.

“That says about two-thirds of the voters don’t like the front-runner,” Fuller said.

Wilson’s support in the polls has recently dropped to single digits again after briefly topping out at 10% last month. The increase was attributed to the national attention he received when he persuaded the University of California Board of Regents to eliminate race as a factor in hiring and admissions.

Until now, Wilson officials have counseled supporters and the media not to compare their campaign to other candidates who launched their efforts earlier.

Monday’s kickoff, however, was the campaign’s self-imposed starting point, after which Wilson strategists said the governor should begin to ascend to the top tier of GOP candidates.

With so much at stake, campaign officials were not going to rely on their national announcement tour for a boost. Wilson launched a television advertising blitz intended to introduce him to voters in key battleground states where he is still largely unknown.

The ads highlight Wilson’s positions on the five major issues with which his strategists have decided to frame the presidential campaign--affirmative action, illegal immigration, government spending, welfare and crime.

The ad went on the air this week in New Hampshire. Campaign officials declined to reveal their plans for broadcasting it elsewhere or how much they would spend.

Wilson’s Monday speech touched all five of his major issues. But, in line with the setting, he gave most of his attention to immigration.

He told of his own grandmother, Kate Barton Callahan, who came to the United States from Ireland around the turn of the century. She married a Chicago policeman who was shot and killed on duty.

“Left alone, Katie cleaned hotel rooms and cared, as best she could, for her baby daughter,” he said. “Like millions of Americans, she toiled and sacrificed in the hope that her child, and her child’s children, would have better lives. We have. I’ve been privileged to live the American Dream.”

Wilson struck a tough and unsympathetic tone in comparing the immigrants who came to the United States through New York’s Ellis Island with those crossing the border illegally:

“Let’s get it straight. There’s a right way to come to America and a wrong way. Illegal immigration is not the American way.”

Wilson, along with reporters and an entourage of supporters who included his 93-year-old father, Jim Wilson, and Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld, boarded a ferry for a ride to the Statue of Liberty after the speech.

Although Wilson’s relative obscurity outside California is the first major hurdle for the campaign, his New York City event also called attention to another one.

Wilson’s strategy for winning the nomination hinges in part on a strong showing in New York’s March 7 primary, which comes right before regional contests in the Midwest and South. But daunting election laws make it difficult for any candidate not backed by the state Republican Party--as Dole is--even to appear on the primary ballot.

Wilson has decided to make the effort to gain a place. Gorton, his campaign manager, said a New York-based attorney has been hired to supervise the project, which he predicted would cost more than $500,000. “It’s ridiculous, but we’ve got to do it,” he said.