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Downsizing Wilson’s Core Beliefs

Most people have some core beliefs--God, family, loyalty. Maybe half a dozen or so. Gov. Pete Wilson has 82.

Eighty-two core beliefs, he says--guiding principles that steer his daily life. That’s a pile of virtue to pack into one basic stump speech, let alone a 30-second TV spot.

So the 82 core beliefs--as written down by Wilson in a campaign memo--have been crunched into four in the new stump speech he has been giving this week.

The improved model is a next-generation version of the old speech, which pounded on five red-meat issues: affirmative action, illegal immigration, welfare, spending and crime.

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He is not discarding these issues. Hardly. He has been beating on them--singling out one or two a day--throughout his cross-country “Liberty Tour” that began Monday with the Statue of Liberty as the TV backdrop.

But strategists sensed that the candidate needed to broaden his repertoire, to seem more--to put it bluntly--presidential. Critics were jabbing him for being too narrow and too negative.

He needed to be more inclusive, more uplifting, more like that other California governor, Ronald Reagan. The wedge issues, particularly illegal immigration and racial preferences, needed to be put in the context of a personal philosophy; this wasn’t just about politics, it also was about principles.

So Wilson’s list of 82 got whittled down to this final four in the new stump speech and the campaign’s first TV ad: “Reward hard work and individual merit; hold individuals personally responsible for their actions; shrink the size and cost and intrusiveness of government; honor and preserve the most important institution in America, the family.”

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For many people, that may sound like pure political rhetoric. But Wilson says, “These are the core beliefs that guide me each day.”

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The process of assembling Wilson’s core beliefs actually began nearly 15 months ago, on the night of the 1994 California primary election. Advisers met with the governor in his hotel suite near the Los Angeles airport to plot strategy for the fall race against Democrat Kathleen Brown.

At that point, they envisaged not only attack ads but some positive spots trumpeting Wilson’s vision for California. Don Sipple, the TV ad guru, asked the governor for some thoughts about his core beliefs. “Within a couple of weeks,” Sipple recalls, “I got a fax of 82 core beliefs, methodically handwritten by the governor.”

That project went on the shelf. It was a lot easier and more effective politically to produce ads attacking criminal thugs, illegal immigration and Kathleen Brown.

But when the governor began running for President, rather awkwardly, Sipple reached on the shelf for the list of 82. With Wilson, he began winnowing. Their goal was to craft a succinct summary of the candidate’s “value system.” (The final product uses just 16 seconds of the TV spot.) They wanted a handy, fits-all philosophical justification for virtually any policy position.

“Crises and issues can come and go, but character and caliber of the individual remain the same,” notes Sipple, 44, a California native who runs his own political ad firm in Washington. “Issues have a [political] role as a prism to illuminate personal traits, such as toughness and leadership.’

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Wilson and his wordsmiths also have sprinkled the new stump speech with some Reaganesque. It’s not “Morning in America” quality, but there is a touch of hope and optimism to smooth the negative edges.

Addressing 100 Atlanta supporters at a breakfast Wednesday, Wilson talked uncharacteristically of “shining hope’s light in every corner.”

“There’s nothing wrong with America that Americans can’t fix,” he said. “Ronald Reagan was right. America’s best days lie ahead. But only if we make it work again. Americans deserve a leader who shares their core beliefs. . . . " Etc.

Some words may be Reagan’s, but the delivery is still Wilson’s. However powerful the message, the messenger seldom excites. His strength always has been TV ads. But they require many millions in campaign donations and are less effective in small state presidential primaries--where news coverage tends to dominate--than in a California gubernatorial race.

This week, to counter his convoluted meandering from prepared texts, Wilson has begun to use a TelePrompTer. The result has been a more focused, forceful delivery. His voice is nearly back to normal after a long recovery from throat surgery.

Wilson is a strong candidate on paper. He’s weak on the podium. He’s working on that, but doesn’t have a lot of time. He needs to catch fire and instill among potential money backers a “core belief” in his electability.


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