Wilson’s Word Gets Raked Over the Coals


It was big political news Monday when Gov. Pete Wilson formally gave up and closed down in Iowa, still five months before its overblown caucuses. But, in reality, he had pulled out 10 days earlier by stiffing a farmers barbecue near Davenport. And although abandoning Iowa may make sense on paper--which is where his candidacy mostly makes sense--it feeds the growing perception that Wilson’s word is very wobbly.

Wilson’s word seems to be written in pencil for convenient erasing when the situation shifts. That certainly is the view of voters who know him best--Californians. In a statewide survey by the Times Poll last weekend, voters by a 4-3 ratio said Wilson is “not a man of deep convictions.” By two to one, they said he “waffles on the issues.”

Clearly, this feeling of mistrust was exacerbated by Wilson’s broken promise to serve out a full second term and not run for President in 1996. Although he was an unpopular governor, voters last November gave Wilson a second chance rather than take a flyer with Democrat Kathleen Brown. Then he tore up his pledge, seemingly snubbing his nose at the voters’ forgiveness and generosity.


Two-thirds of California’s Republicans say the governor should not run for President, the Times poll found. Three-fourths of all registered voters reject his rationale that he could do more for the state as President than as governor.

“I’m sick of politicians who tell me one thing and do another,” says Beverly Payne of Placentia, a Republican surveyed by the poll. “I’ve seen it so much, guess I’ve just drawn a line in the sand. He said he wouldn’t run and I think he should keep his word. It makes me mad.”


As for Iowa, one easily can argue that Wilson should never have even tried to compete.

The state provides just 1.3% of the Republican delegates, none of whom will be selected on caucus night. No winner of a contested Iowa caucus ever has won the GOP nomination. A candidate there needs an army of local politicos, most of whom already had been recruited by Wilson’s rivals. This is old-fashioned, grip-and-grin politics, not his strong suit. It’s a bastion of the religious right, which abhors Wilson’s abortion rights stand. And running there is very time-consuming, particularly for a California governor.

Nevertheless, Iowa hosts candidate cattle calls that are showcased nationally by the news media. It’s a place to pick up momentum. And Wilson did commit himself to campaigning aggressively there.

“We intend to be in Iowa a great deal,” Wilson assured supporters as he opened his state headquarters in Des Moines on June 19. “We’re going to put on a full-court press here.”

Intentions changed after Wilson won only 1% of an Iowa straw poll last month while finishing eighth. This was a silly event, but it spotlighted the Californian’s weakness in the state. So on Monday, the governor announced he would focus instead on primaries in New Hampshire, Arizona, New England, New York and Florida.


That decision, however, likely was made privately by Wilson on Aug. 31 after he landed in Des Moines to “officially” announce his candidacy. A hog farmer was hosting a barbecue for the candidate and 70 neighbors, 45 minutes due east by jet. Wilson was headed west to San Diego that afternoon.

En route to the Des Moines airport to fly to the barbecue, a two-car collision in front of Wilson’s motorcade delayed him by 15 minutes. That was his excuse for stiffing the event. The farm visit obviously was not a high priority because he already was running 45 minutes late before the accident. The governor called the farmer and asked for “a rain check.”

“He needs to get out and drive the gravel roads,” said Thurman Gaskill, another Iowa farmer serving as Wilson’s agriculture adviser. “Go into the coffee shops and stop at the grain elevators.”

Wilson considered that a waste of time. His campaign plane took off for San Diego and won’t be returning.


More important, the governor seems to have abandoned California.

Among voters who supported him last November, 62% say he should not run for President, the poll found.

“I voted for him and he lied to us,” says Coleman Mathews, a retired Pico Rivera Republican. “If I had a choice between Clinton and him, I might just take a walk.”


“I think he’s wasting his time,” says Diane Bevacqua, an Oxnard Republican who works for a videotape manufacturer. “I’d like to see him concentrate on bringing jobs back to California, getting violence straightened out and dealing with our education problems. I’d have considered voting for Kathleen Brown if I’d known Pete Wilson was going to pull this.”

Wilson needs to do some campaigning--and governing--in his own state.