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Looking for the Lazarus in Pete Wilson

It’s an unfortunate trait of human nature that the kindest words and tenderest signs of respect for people usually come at their funerals. And so it has been for Gov. Pete Wilson since his presidential candidacy died.

The governor received probably the warmest, loudest, longest crowd response of his campaign Friday when he announced to 150 supporters in Sacramento that he was pulling the plug. Politicians--many of them backing other candidates--quickly issued statements praising his contributions to the national debate and welcoming him home.

At a Republican state convention outside Palm Springs on Saturday, delegates who had been prepared to stiff Wilson joined in the most enthusiastic reception ever for him at a party gathering. You could sense the relief among Republicans that his candidacy had expired. “It was dying and it’s finally over,” said one pleased adviser to another top GOP politician. “Everybody’s known for two weeks that it was terminal.”

State GOP Chairman John S. Herrington noted that Wilson’s presidential bid had been “a controversial point” within the party and said its demise “does a great deal for Republican unity.”

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Wilson’s weekend goal, however, was to persuade GOP activists--and the donors he still must solicit to help pay off a $1-million campaign debt--that this particular candidacy may be dead, but he can be resurrected politically. He can be a Lazarus.

“Listen and understand well what I’m about to tell you,” the governor told his Sacramento followers. “There shall be no tears. . . . You remember Douglas MacArthur, the great general? . . . His wonderful line: ‘Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.’ It’s a hell of a line, it’s a great line, but not for me. . . . This old Marine ain’t about to just fade away.”

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There were several suggestions by the 61-year-old career politician that he might run again in 2000. He noted, “We’re not going to be privileged to enjoy serving as President at least this time around .”

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He’ll “continue bringing fundamental change to California . . . and then we’ll take that lesson across the country .” From his mentor Richard Nixon, who lost a 1962 gubernatorial race, he learned “that defeat is only temporary unless you let it conquer you.”

Wilson’s aides didn’t even bother with subtleties. “Don’t throw these away,” spokesman Dan Schnur told a meeting of county GOP leaders, pointing to dozens of “Pete Wilson for President” signs. The governor could have won this race, the aide insisted, if he’d “had the time [to campaign], like he will four years from now.”

Bold talk from a candidate who has just been battered and humiliated and, according to the polls, could not even have carried his home state.

“He may refer to himself as a fighting Marine,” said Lyn Nofziger, a former adviser to Ronald Reagan, “but people don’t vote for a Marine for President.”

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Echoing others at the convention, Nofziger said it’s possible for Wilson to resurrect himself and run again in 2000--assuming another Republican is not then President--"if he busts his butt for three years and gets his own state behind him.”

“He’s got to sit down and ask himself, ‘Who am I?’ ” Nofziger added. “ ‘What do I believe in?’ Then stand firm. People have to think he believes in something.”

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These are some public things Wilson could do:

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* Acknowledge Californians’ anger at his broken promise not to run. “He’s got to tell people,” asserted Nofziger, “that ‘I got your message. You want me to stay at home and be governor and that’s what I’m going to do.’ ”

* Then show good faith by unequivocally ruling out the vice presidency in 1996. That should be easy. It’s unfathomable that a presidential nominee would want Wilson as a running mate anyway. Yet, when asked about the No. 2 spot, campaign chairman Craig Fuller said the governor “has not ruled anything in or out.”

* Demonstrate he’s actively engaged and also very concerned about Los Angeles by calling a special legislative session to help the county through its fiscal quagmire. Lead the negotiations on a compromise bill to augment President Clinton’s $364-million bailout package.

* Focus on solving California’s long-term problems, even if it doesn’t produce immediate political rewards. Problems such as: an inflexible tax structure, weak local government, an antiquated water system, deteriorating highways, overwhelmed schools.

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* Follow Nixon’s example and campaign hard to elect Republicans, first in 1996 to control the Legislature and then across the country in 1998 to earn IOUs for 2000.

It’s a distant long shot--and much longer because he already has run once and fallen on his face. But there is a bit of Lazarus in Wilson.


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