California Gov. Pete Wilson, in an effort to retain some voice in the Republican presidential race that he abandoned three weeks ago, on Monday endorsed the front-runner, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.
Wilson said that he had no interest in a potential vice presidential nomination and insisted that he would turn it down if Dole offered it to him.
Two weeks ago, in an interview with The Times, the governor said he might have considered running in the No. 2 spot with Dole when the two met last February, a month before Wilson decided to launch what became his ill-fated White House bid. But the subject never came up, he said.
Wilson now will be getting help from the Dole campaign in retiring the $1.5-million debt that was a major reason Wilson dropped out of the race late last month.
Senior Wilson political adviser Craig Fuller said Monday that he and Dole aides had discussed the debt last week, although it "remains to be seen" what help Dole himself might provide in erasing it.
Fuller said that Wilson's top money man, Orange County developer Donald Bren, would work closely with Dole's finance team to identify sources of California Republican money that had not already been tapped.
Wilson will also become one of a half-dozen "national chairmen" on Dole's campaign letterhead.
The endorsement comes only five weeks after Wilson accused Dole of being a "hostile guardian of the status quo" who was stalling the Republican revolution launched by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and GOP governors like Wilson. A few days earlier than that, Wilson had blistered Dole as an unprincipled compromiser who as Senate majority leader was presiding over the "graveyard" of the Republican revolution.
Dole's campaign had responded by calling Wilson a hypocrite and a waffler. Dole's chief spokesman branded Wilson "one of the most liberal Republicans ever to seek national office."
But at Dole campaign headquarters in Washington on Monday, the two veteran politicians had nothing but praise for one another.
Wilson tried to explain away his "graveyard" comment as "a disagreement on one aspect" of welfare reform legislation and said that Dole has since adopted his position. The Kansas senator, Wilson said, stood "head and shoulders" above the rest of the Republican field.
"Throughout his life, Sen. Dole has shown the courage and the character to make the kind of fundamental change that Californians and Americans want and deserve," Wilson said. He also assessed the Senate majority leader as the Republican candidate with the best chance to regain the White House.
As Wilson elaborately praised his recent rival for the GOP nomination, Dole stood unmoving behind his left shoulder, his trademark scowl imprinted on his face.
"This announcement means a lot to my campaign. No doubt about it, it's very important. To have the advice of the governor of America's largest state, to share ideas with one of our party's brightest thinkers, to count on his campaign support--this means a lot to me personally," Dole said.
Wilson thus joins scores of Republican officeholders at all levels who have announced their support of the Dole candidacy.
The benefits of big-name endorsements are debatable. While Dole obviously believes they are valuable, others contend that they show only that Dole is acceptable to the Republican Establishment and thus out of touch with the revolutionary fervor of the GOP of the 1990s.
Republican analyst Bill Kristol--no fan of Dole's--made that argument, jibing that Wilson's endorsement is "probably the last nail in Bob Dole's coffin." Allying himself with the moderate, pro-choice Wilson would fatally alienate conservative and religious Republican activists, who have never considered Dole a true cultural conservative, Kristol argued.
Dole is trailing Clinton in most California opinion polls and Wilson is currently even less popular with California voters, in large measure because he broke his pledge last fall not to run for President.
Dole also announced that Steven Merksamer, who was chief of staff to George Deukmejian during his tenure as California governor, will join the campaign as a senior adviser.
Broder reported from Washington and Lesher from Sacramento. Times political writer Ronald Brownstein contributed to this story.