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COLUMN ONE : How Master Campaigner Stumbled : Dogged by misjudgments, Wilson’s strengths became his weaknesses. In the end, he couldn’t raise money and he couldn’t deliver California backing.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If there was one thing Pete Wilson could do, it was run a heck of a campaign. So the political oddsmakers said.

His staff was developing the kind of dynasty reputation that sports teams acquire only after a string of championships.

He was undefeated in four consecutive attempts: two Senate campaigns, two gubernatorial campaigns, including a Rocky-style comeback last year.

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When he entered the presidential race last March, political analysts from Sacramento to Boston looked at Wilson and thought they saw a contender.

But now, mighty Wilson has struck out. But what’s most confounding to Wilson’s supporters is that the governor’s highly-decorated campaign organization is taking much of the blame for blowing it.

How did they misdo it? Count the ways:

On money, Wilson aides admit they spent it without knowing how much they had. On strategy, the leadership was split on tactics and divided over loyalties. On California, Wilson and his aides misjudged the damage done when he broke his promise to serve out his term as governor and not run for President. And on message, Wilson based his hopes on moderate voters, but alienated many of them by an increasingly strident appeal on affirmative action and other controversial conservative issues and a studied ambiguity about his stand on abortion rights.

Above all, as the presidential talent scouts review their initial assessments of Wilson’s strong potential, many are attributing his poor performance to his misjudgment of the vast differences between a California campaign and a national one.

Money is comparatively easy to raise in California state races, where there is no limit on the size of political donations, and where Wilson was able to raise $29 million for his reelection last year, much of it from donors who gave well over $10,000. By contrast, under federal law, campaigns must raise contributions in chunks of no more than $1,000, putting a premium on building a huge network of medium-sized givers--something Wilson had not had to do as governor.

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Strategically, California is a media-driven state where candidates are sold on television like soap. The presidential race opens with a mosaic of small and separate races where points are gained by personal, almost neighborly relationships.

As one California Republican described the difference, Wilson is a television-made candidate who could win a race for governor of California but could easily lose a contest for mayor of Bakersfield.

Flush with the triumph of their victory last year, Wilson and his aides failed to account for those differences when they entered the race. Indeed, the lesson did not really sink in until earlier this month, when Wilson abruptly abandoned his California-style approach and triggered a high-level shake-up involving the resignation of the chief strategist in his career, George Gorton.

Even those problems, however, might have been overcome if Wilson had succeeded in securing his statewide base. But he failed to do so. The governor’s constituents took umbrage when he violated the promise he repeatedly made last year that he would not run for President. Campaign aides privately acknowledge that the rancor of the state’s voters undercut the two major reasons Wilson was considered to be a top contender--that he could win in California and he could raise the money he needed.

“It’s really hard to raise money in the rest of the country when you’re not raising it in California,” one of Wilson’s New England deputies said Friday.

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The cause of death in the Wilson autopsy will be bankruptcy, aides acknowledge. Wilson fund-raisers say they were far short of their goals in four consecutive months--from May to August.

“It really got down to the fact that doing what we needed to do in the future was going to require considerably more money, and getting considerably more money required us to have him further advanced in the polling,” campaign Chairman Craig Fuller said Friday. “So it was kind of a Catch-22.”

In private phone calls to his key supporters Friday, Wilson blamed the fund-raising problems on his absences from the campaign trail caused by an unexpectedly long recovery from throat surgery and his presence in Sacramento during state budget negotiations in July.

Even without those setbacks, however, Wilson would have been under pressure to move quickly when he entered the race as all of the other major candidates had a head start of months and in some cases years.

“Politics is a game of perception,” said Jeanie Austin, national co-chair of Wilson’s campaign in Florida. “And when you read that he got in late, that he’s not raising the money he needs, then people say, ‘Well, I better go find a horse that can win.’ ”

By mid-June--even before he had “officially” announced his campaign--Wilson was already scrambling and was compelled to hold a news conference in which he denied rumors that he was about to drop out of the race. But Wilson never shook the perception that his campaign was floundering, making it all the more difficult for his fund-raisers to convince donors that he could topple front-runner Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the Senate majority leader.

By early September, campaign aides say the operation was more than $1 million in debt. And in an effort to recover, many officials say, the campaign made the problems worse.

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Their decision to close a campaign office in Iowa two weeks ago was interpreted by many supporters as a sign that Wilson’s effort was so weak it could not compete in the nation’s first presidential caucus. The following week, an internal squabble spilled out into public when Gorton quit after losing a power struggle with Fuller.

The Gorton-Fuller tensions undermined Wilson’s effort ever since last spring, when Wilson hired Fuller, a former top campaign aide to then-President George Bush in 1988. A dejected Gorton, who had run all four of Wilson’s successful statewide campaigns in California, disappeared to Hawaii for several days with aides wondering whether he would be back.

Gorton returned, but from that point on, aides now say, the campaign was a monster with two heads.

“What screwed them up is the bifurcated leadership,” one Republican insider said. “Fuller thought Gorton was doing the money and Gorton thought Fuller was doing the money. They can say it was the throat--and that was a big deal--but the [lack of attention to the] money put them over the edge here.”

One indication of the problems of poor money management could be seen in Wilson’s staff. The campaign had a staff of about 90 paid employees--far too big for Wilson to afford. When the campaign finally decided to scale back its expenses this month, the first plan was to drastically reduce the staff. For the last week, almost everyone has also worked without a paycheck.

“Probably the most important mistake they made was not budgeting based on realistic fund-raising expectations,” said California Republican consultant Sal Russo. “They spent money as if their fund-raising goals there were realistic and they weren’t.”

To make matters far worse, Wilson’s message appeared not to be connecting with voters, particularly in the key state of New Hampshire, scene of the first primary voting next winter.

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After running nearly five weeks of television commercials, Wilson’s aides were deeply distressed by a poll of the state’s Republican voters released Thursday that showed Wilson in fifth place with only 4% support.

“The polls are a sign that it is very difficult to get into and to stay in the top tier of candidates in this Republican campaign,” Fuller said. “It is that inability to stay in the top tier without considerably more resources that was the factor in this decision.”

Politically, the high point of Wilson’s campaign came in July when the governor received a week of national attention for persuading the University of California Board of Regents to cast a historic decision striking race as a factor in hiring and admissions.

The affirmative action issue pitted Wilson against President Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and others in a national debate that was highlighted on news programs for more than a week. In the next national opinion poll, Wilson’s support doubled, but only from 5% to 10%.

The improvement was short-lived, however, and even it contained a bad side for Wilson--complicating his task of trying to hold his moderate Republican supporters while running on conservative issues. As one of the few Republican presidential candidates who support abortion rights, Wilson’s campaign strategy relied heavily on moderate GOP supporters in New Hampshire and other crucial early primaries.

But some women who liked the governor for his abortion position were also put off by his high-profile opposition to affirmative action programs. Some also charged that the governor was appealing to right-wing conservatives when he appeared to soften his stand on abortion in June, indicating that he would not join a major fight at the Republican National Convention next year to remove an anti-abortion plank from the party’s platform.

By Aug. 28, when Wilson launched an official kickoff of his presidential campaign at the Statue of Liberty, his supporters were still optimistic that their problems could be overcome because all of the presidential candidates were struggling and the race was still a low priority for voters.

But instead of a kickoff, Wilson’s campaign was nearly over.

On Friday, as he talked to his cheering supporters in Sacramento, the governor fought back his emotion. And like a ship’s captain, he took responsibility for any problems in his command.

“I hope I have not let you down,” Wilson said. “I blame no one but myself. This is my campaign.”

* RELATED STORIES: A17-A19


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