Wilson Drops Out of White House Race, Blames Cash Woes : Politics: Governor is first to withdraw from crowded GOP field. Move decided at Newport Beach hotel opens opportunities in state for former rivals.


Six months after he leaped into the Republican presidential race brimming with optimism, California Gov. Pete Wilson on Friday became the first candidate to withdraw, his hopes foiled by laggardly fund raising, a campaign in disarray and a series of politically ill-timed misfortunes.

Eyes occasionally moist as he thanked his campaign workers at a Sacramento rally, Wilson blamed poor fund raising for his inability to translate his powerful California presence into a cohesive and productive presidential effort.

“Despite all your incredible generosity, your money, your time, your effort, your confidence and your love, and as much as your hearts and mine tell me to fight on, my conscience tells me that to do so would be unfair to all of us,” Wilson said.


He added: “To go on would simply be to run up an unacceptable debt.”

His existing debt--estimated by his campaign to be in the range of $1 million--drew a wry aside from the governor in the 21-minute conclusion to a campaign that he hoped would represent the pinnacle of his 33 years in politics: “I have savaged Washington for deficit spending. I can hardly pursue it in my own campaign.”

The decision to end his campaign was made Wednesday night at a meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach with his longtime aide Bob White, his political benefactor and Orange County land baron Donald L. Bren, Bren aide Gary Hunt and campaign Chairman Craig Fuller. It came as a bitter pill for the proud and feisty governor, whose political career has been marked by grind-it-out victories over better-known and usually flashier opponents.

While it does not create a massive vacuum in a race where he had yet to gain a strong foothold, Wilson’s withdrawal does open opportunities for other GOP candidates in the wealthy world of California fund raising and in the state’s March 26 primary. The winner-take-all primary will dispense 163 delegates, the most of any state on the road to the Republican nomination.

Each of the remaining GOP presidential candidates, from conservative Patrick J. Buchanan to moderate Arlen Specter, contended that Wilson’s withdrawal was good news for him--an indication of the fractured nature of the governor’s presidential message.

Wilson’s decision was a closely guarded secret, limited to a handful of chief advisers until just hours before it became official. It caught both his supporters and his opponents by surprise, although the campaign had been sputtering for weeks. The difficulties had become virtually constant since he launched a nationwide tour Aug. 28 to formally announce his candidacy.

In the wake of his departure, state and national political analysts began handicapping Wilson’s future. Most assume that he could still be a viable candidate for vice president--if a weaker one, perhaps, than before this race--and could theoretically mount another presidential campaign if he forges some sort of legacy out of his last three years as governor.


Wilson himself spent much of his Friday address seeking to dispel any notion that his poor showing in the presidential sweepstakes suggests that he is washed up as politician.

He recalled the famous line from Gen. Douglas MacArthur that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Then he added pointedly, to sustained applause:

“It’s a helluva line. A great line. But not for me. I don’t know about old soldiers, but this old Marine ain’t about to just fade away.”


Wilson’s withdrawal leaves nine major announced Republican candidates: Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, Sen. Specter of Pennsylvania, former commentator Buchanan, publisher Malcolm S. (Steven) Forbes Jr., former State Department official Alan Keyes and Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove.

Hanging over the field as well is former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell, whose consideration of a presidential bid has spurred excitement in some Republican quarters.

The campaign manager for Dole, the front-runner whose stock has been slipping in recent weeks, insisted that Wilson’s decision solidified the Kansan’s role in the race, particularly in California.


“With Wilson out, Dole’s lead looks stronger than ever,” said Scott Reed. “We will aggressively work to pick up the lion’s share of his supporters.

But the other candidates were picking at the remains as well. Buchanan laid claim to those who supported Wilson’s conservative stances on illegal immigration and affirmative action. Specter said he received a “big boost” because he is now the most prominent abortion-rights supporter left in the race. Gramm’s campaign reiterated his plan to make California “his top priority.” And Alexander argued that he is now the only non-Washington candidate.

In retrospect, Wilson’s campaign was snake-bit from the start, and in many ways was the antithesis of what has become his political legend in California--the ability to exercise stunning discipline, utilize a tight team of loyalists and command both the money and the issues driving a particular campaign.

In that sense, it was much like Wilson’s little-known 1978 campaign for governor, when he came in fourth in a seven-man field after a performance that he himself has always derided as totally unmemorable.

“The hallmark of a successful Wilson campaign--and most of his have been successful--is a combination of an early start, prodigious fund raising, a sound campaign theme and organization and no mistakes,” said one California Republican leader with ties to Wilson.


“And he’s violated every single one of those norms. He got a late start, he was underfunded, disorganized, way off message and just making a lot of mistakes.”


Wilson informally jumped into the race on March 23, when he declared that he had “not just an opportunity but a duty” to run for President. That decision drew fire from many Republican activists and fund-raisers, who had labored through Wilson’s 1994 come-from-behind race for governor and who believed him when he pledged repeatedly to serve his full second term.

The bad feeling was compounded by immediate problems.

In mid-April, before his campaign gained much altitude, Wilson had a cyst removed from his vocal cords, an operation that was supposed to limit his speaking voice for only a few weeks. Instead, the vocal difficulties stretched on for months; on Friday, in fact, his voice squeaked and groaned through his address.

In May, reports surfaced that he had hired an illegal immigrant as a maid when he lived in San Diego--an act that was not illegal--and had not paid Social Security taxes for her.

Had it involved another candidate, the disclosure might not have been so threatening. But Wilson made his opposition to illegal immigration a central theme of both his ’94 gubernatorial campaign and his presidential bid, and critics leaped on him as being hypocritical. The charge added weight, as well, to other seeming flip-flops. As governor, he raised taxes; in his presidential campaign, he adamantly opposed any increases. Then there was his newfound opposition to affirmative action.

Those stumbles might have been survivable had Wilson’s vaunted fund-raising prowess showed itself in the presidential race. But throughout the summer and into fall, he lagged behind in that important arena. For comparison, as he leaves the race with a $1-million debt, Dole has more than $7 million in the bank.

Wilson found it more difficult than he or his campaign advisers had imagined to raise money in California, where many fund-raisers were angry at his decision to run for the White House and got their revenge via the pocketbook.


Much, if not all, of Wilson’s debt will be covered by federal matching funds that he is due to receive after Jan. 1. Under Federal Election Commission rules, he can receive enough to cover his debt if that debt is equal to or less than the amount he qualified for.

The fund-raising crisis in part spurred a shake-up two weeks ago of Wilson’s senior campaign staff, which led to the departure of 25-year aide George Gorton, who had managed Wilson’s four successful statewide races.

Power was consolidated under Fuller, an aide to George Bush when he was vice president. Fuller’s first task was to “restructure” the campaign and lay off excess staff; as it turned out, his major role was to close the operation down.

Politicians of all stripes were reluctant to declare the governor damaged goods, either because they have to work with him through 1998 or because they have seen him rise, phoenix-like, from difficulties before.

Even before his decision was announced, however, Wilson aides made it clear that the governor understood that he had lost ground in California--where even 70% of Republicans said recently they opposed his presidential bid. Whether he can turn that around, analysts said, may ultimately determine his political future.

Wilson, for one, was publicly optimistic on Friday. He recalled his first political job, as an underling in the 1962 gubernatorial campaign of his mentor, Richard Nixon, and the “bitterness of defeat” on that long-ago Election Night.


“I learned something else, and that is defeat is only temporary unless you let it conquer you,” he said.

“And my candidate, who lost that night, went on to become President of the United States.”