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WILSON QUITS CAMPAIGN : Can Wilson Salvage Rest of His Term? : Future: Rivals and allies wonder if he can retain his enthusiasm for the governorship and regain citizens’ goodwill.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Gov. Pete Wilson was many things on Friday: feisty, sentimental and even a bit funny. But as he took his first step toward repairing his home state standing by ending his presidential campaign, Wilson was anything but contrite.

As he ran for the presidency, Republican lawmakers at the state Capitol openly challenged him, his support among California voters plummeted and his legislative priorities stalled. But as Wilson announced his decision Friday to quit the race for the GOP nomination, he made no apology and expressed no regrets.

Instead, Wilson was defiant: “There is one hell of a lot of fight left in this old Marine.” The governor pledged to push his vision for America in California first.

Now, the question is: Can Wilson regain support among the electorate and salvage his last three years as governor, or does he return as a lame duck, a sort of Republican Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., who seemingly lost interest in being governor after he failed in his 1980 presidential run.

Initial indications are that he will plunge back into the affairs of state.

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While Democrats say Wilson’s ill-fated run for the presidency has weakened him, Republican lawmakers and major donors, including many who opposed his presidential candidacy, were buoyed by Wilson’s decision to pull out.

From Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich to major GOP money man Sam Bamieh, Republicans are counting on Wilson to focus full-time on pushing the GOP agenda through the Legislature and on raising big money for state legislative races in November.

Bamieh is the Bay Area businessman who was the largest individual donor, at $200,000, of Wilson’s reelection campaign last year. But he became one of the harshest critics of Wilson’s presidential run, endorsing rival Lamar Alexander for the nomination.

On Friday, his prescription for a Wilson comeback in California was simple: Focus on getting Republicans elected, “from dogcatcher to the next governor.”

“If he concentrates on California initiatives, on California elected officials, he will leave a legacy that will help him get elected [President] next time around, if, God forbid, Clinton gets reelected,” Bamieh said.

For his part, Wilson did not directly address California questions as he pulled out of the national race. When he did, he made references to using any successes here for future national campaigns.

“We will continue forging America’s future, and a much better future,” Wilson said, “by bringing fundamental change to California, assuring a safer and a more just and a more prosperous society here first, and then we’ll take that lesson across the country.”

Now that the trips to New Hampshire are canceled, the governor’s first chore will be to get through the roughly 500 bills still awaiting his signature or veto.

Then, when lawmakers return in January, major components of Wilson’s legislative agenda will be the order of the day. There is his 15% income and business tax cut, his plans to overhaul the civil court system by limiting the right to sue, and his desire to change environmental and education laws.

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Republican legislators who had been critical of Wilson’s decision to run for the presidency immediately began trying to repair their relations, knowing that a governor, even a weakened one, wields significant power.

“This is obviously a failure for the governor, and I’m not happy that he failed, certainly for him personally,” said Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R-Chico), who led an effort in the Assembly to gain endorsements for Gramm.

“I am happy, though, that this very difficult situation is over,” Richter added. “We need a very strong Pete Wilson. We have problems in this state. I’m very happy, not that he lost, but that he’s back.”

More than a fourth of Assembly Republicans endorsed Gramm and eight of 17 Senate Republicans endorsed the Texan. Only four Republican state senators endorsed Wilson, said state Sen. Ken Maddy (R-Fresno).

Much of the Republican anger stemmed from Wilson’s broken promise, made repeatedly in 1994, that he would not run for President this year and would serve out his full four-year term.

“This decision may have a solidifying effect in terms of Pete Wilson’s support,” said UC Regent Ward Connerly, a close friend of the governor’s.

Republicans, Connerly said, “were ticked off that he broke his pledge to serve another term as governor and might be leaving California to [Lt. Gov.] Gray Davis. But now they’re calling me and saying, ‘Tell Pete we’re back in.’ People have forgiven him.”

Few people know better than Davis how hard it is to run for the presidency, lose, and return to be governor.

“It’s a lot better coming back the conquering hero than with your tail between your legs,” said Davis, who was chief of staff to Brown when the former governor lost bids for the presidency in 1980 and 1976.

After his second loss, Brown seemed to be in a funk, uninterested in being governor for his final two years. Davis, recalling that experience, noted: “It is hard to leave the dazzle of presidential politics.”

Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this story.


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