Wilson Gases Up for Big 6 Road Tour


The way Gov. Pete Wilson reads the map, his road to the White House goes through New Hampshire, Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Florida and--if he’s still running--dangerous California.

Certainly there will be other stops and detours. Iowa is a mandatory pit stop, for example, and Oregon is inviting. Any place could be a dead-end.

But the Big Six--excluding his home state--is where Wilson really intends to pour on the fuel. His goal is to exceed expectations in New Hampshire and win the rest.


The point, after all, is the presidential nomination, not just a good run. As Wilson says, “I’m not running for exercise.”

So far, the handicappers’ line on the Californian has been that he “has no traction.”

But there have been two intriguing spurts. The first was in late July after Wilson pushed the UC regents into ending racial and gender preferences. His poll rating doubled from 5% to 10% in an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey. The second came last week just after his “official announcement” of candidacy in front of the Statue of Liberty. His numbers rose from 4% to 10% as measured by USA Today/CNN.

Still, front-runner Bob Dole remained virtually unchanged at 45%. No road map works for Wilson unless the Senate majority leader crashes. Voters must see him as a tired, opportunistic, Washington insider.

The governor’s principal pitch is that among the GOP candidates, he’s the most electable, the one “President Clinton fears most.” Big talk. To back it up, he’ll need to win a bunch of primary elections.


Last week was a crucial success for Wilson. Despite a couple of rough spots, his “Liberty Tour” was a smooth ride. As is custom, he stayed on course and didn’t ad lib anything that later needed to be retracted. And because he began using a TelePrompTer in speeches, he came across more tough than tedious.

There now seems to be renewed interest in his candidacy.

He’ll try to cash in by collecting millions in campaign contributions. The goal has been $20 million by Jan. 1, but the flow has been disappointing. One adviser predicts a year-end gross of only $12 million to $16 million. Roughly 200 fund-raising events already have been booked.


Wilson hopes to outpace the field to become Dole’s main challenger the old-fashioned way: by raising money for TV ads that boost his poll numbers, which then attract more donor-investors.

He’ll also keep brazenly exaggerating his record as governor--particularly on taxes and spending--and telling voters that, in contrast to his Senate rivals: “They talk, I’ve acted.”

The sprint begins Feb. 12 in the Iowa caucuses.

Wilson’s forte is a focused TV message, not the personal campaigning and grass-roots organizing required in Iowa. He is starting there late and would like to do just a flyover, dropping leaflets. But the “system,” with its debates and news coverage, demands that candidates participate and match expectations. He’ll have to place at least fourth or fold.


Each contest provides momentum-- orward or reverse--for the next. And Wilson must pick up momentum in the first primary, New Hampshire’s on Feb. 20. He already is running TV ads there. Publicly, his aim is at least third, but realistically he needs second. And Dole has to be badly bruised.

Wilson is counting on winning Arizona’s primary Feb. 27 and fatally wounding Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who has made it one of his key states. Gramm is vulnerable, Wilson surmises, because he opposed Proposition 187 and Arizona is fed up with illegal immigration.

Coloradans on March 5 will prefer Wilson’s anti-Washington fusillade, he theorizes. And also on that day--dubbed “Junior Tuesday”--he expects to win in Massachusetts, thanks to Gov. William F. Weld’s guidance.


Then comes New York two days later. Wilson now thinks this is where he must knock out Dole, who is backed by the state’s GOP machine. The Kansan never could recover from such an upset beating.

And on “Super Tuesday” March 12, Wilson hopes to finish off Gramm in Florida. Cubans need not worry about his hard line against illegal immigration, the Californian will assure them, because he supports political asylum.

It’s hard to see a winnable Midwest primary on March 19, “Big 10 Tuesday.” But by then, his strategists say, Wilson either has the “Big Mo” or Dole is on a roll. If it’s the former, Wilson will run well in the Midwest and on March 26 proud Californians will forgive their governor for breaking his pledge not to run. If it’s the latter, he’ll simply pull off the road.

There’s also another scenario: A winning Wilson races into California and piles up on an angry GOP electorate. That would be fatal.