Key Aide Gorton Quits in Jolt to Wilson Candidacy : Politics: Campaign manager ends 25 years of work for governor. : Debt crisis is seen behind the upheaval.


Gov. Pete Wilson on Wednesday accepted the resignation from his presidential campaign of the key strategist throughout his political career, George Gorton, a move that resolves a simmering internal struggle but delivers another jolt to a staggering White House bid.

Gorton, 47, quit as manager of the presidential campaign, ending 25 years of political work for Wilson--including the leading role in four statewide victories. Gorton’s departure is part of an upheaval in the campaign triggered last week when sources said Wilson learned his effort is about $1 million in debt.

In the subsequent crisis, sources said, Wilson assigned increased authority to campaign Chairman Craig Fuller, prompting Gorton to quit rather than continue in a lesser role.


Gorton rejected that portrayal of his departure, saying in an interview that he decided to leave because media attention about his rivalry with Fuller had escalated to the point that it was damaging the governor’s ability to reach voters.

Sources said Wilson’s campaign is still trying to assess the extent of the recent damage it has suffered, especially because it will now have to resolve the massive debt by convincing contributors that the governor can still be a viable candidate for the Republican nomination.

The problems are so serious that some of Wilson’s opponents in the GOP presidential race are predicting his imminent exit from the contest. ‘They’ve lost their base, they’re broke and the team is rearranging their deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Dan McClagan, spokesman for former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander’s campaign.

But there is at least one powerful motivation for Wilson to remain in the race through the end of the year--if he pulled out before then, his campaign would not be eligible for federal matching campaign funds.

Privately, Wilson campaign officials acknowledged that they have serious problems to overcome, but for now they have concluded it is too soon to tell whether the condition is politically fatal.

None of the internal acrimony that led to the resignation was reflected in statements released Wednesday by Gorton and Wilson. Instead, in melancholy recollections, both men relived their 25-year bonding in some of California’s most epic political battles--two for the Senate (1982 and 1988) and two for governor (1990 and 1994).


“As a team, you’d have to say we knocked ‘em dead,” Gorton wrote in his resignation letter. “Jerry Brown, Leo McCarthy, Dianne Feinstein and Kathleen Brown--we beat the best the Democrats had to offer. And we came from behind more times than not.”

“It’s been a great 25 years,” his letter concluded. “You’ll make a great President. We’ve made a great team. I wish you well, my friend.

In a one-page statement, Wilson also recalled their relationship and its beginning in his first mayoral race in San Diego in 1970.

“I couldn’t have done it without George’s unique ability to both grasp and communicate the issues of concern to the people of California and the discipline to drive that message home,” Wilson said.

Gorton’s resignation came one day after the departure of Wilson’s national finance director, Anne LeGassick. Her resignation was publicly described as voluntary, but a source said Wednesday that was only because ‘she did not have to be told” to leave.

Fuller said Wednesday that the campaign has several fund-raising events scheduled in the next two weeks before an October finance report that will reveal Wilson’s bank account. Fuller added that more staff changes will be announced this week--including layoffs.


He also confirmed that a plan to relocate dozens of staff members from the headquarters in Sacramento to a new office in Washington is now unlikely.

On Wednesday, officials described a somber feeling in campaign headquarters as staff members absorbed the news of Gorton’s resignation.

Gorton has been known throughout California GOP circles as one of the state’s most accomplished political tacticians. His reputation was solidified last year when he engineered Wilson’s surprisingly easy come-from-behind victory in the governor’s race over Brown.

Despite their record together, sources said Wilson decided early this year that Gorton, given his lack of experience in a national campaign, was not suited to chair his presidential bid. The governor turned to Fuller, who had also worked on his campaigns in the 1970s and went on to serve as top aide in George Bush’s successful 1988 presidential bid.

When Fuller was brought into the campaign late last spring, a dejected Gorton disappeared for several days in Hawaii. At the time, some campaign workers wondered whether he would return. Ever since, there has been speculation about the pair’s working relationship.

The rumors were heightened last week when the campaign announced a controversial decision to close its office in Iowa, site of the nation’s first presidential caucus. Officials said the decision was made the previous week in a meeting that included the governor, Fuller and Gorton at the Orange County home of Irvine Co. President Donald Bren.


When the announcement was made, it was widely interpreted as a sign of weakness from a campaign already perceived as struggling. Days later, sources said Wilson learned that the campaign had far less money than he had believed, prompting him to order Fuller to overhaul the staff and strategy.

Sources said Gorton, in contrast to Fuller, had been trying to direct the campaign toward a heavier use of television advertising in New Hampshire and other key states in the primary campaign. When news of the financial shortfall was revealed, sources said, Fuller immediately scaled back the campaign’s plan for television, reducing the major assignment Gorton had assumed.