There was the sound of slapstick comedy--and the look of a kiddie cartoon--about Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's endorsement Monday by Gov. Pete Wilson.
It wasn't so much that Wilson only recently had blistered Dole as a "hostile guardian of the status quo," and now was proclaiming him to be a "gutsy leader" who stood "head and shoulders" above all the other presidential candidates. That's just normal politics, the kind of flip-flop rhetoric that drives up voter cynicism.
Nor was it all the ludicrous speculation that the unpopular governor, who had angered California by breaking his promise not to run for President, somehow was angling to become Dole's 1996 running mate. Wilson is more realistic than that.
No, the slapstick was behind the scenes. It was being played out by California's top two Republicans--Wilson and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren--and resembled two dogs growling at each other. It sounded like Dole had promised them both the same bone: the No. 1 role in his California campaign.
Who's "in charge" of the effort would be of little note if both the attorney general and the governor were not claiming the role for themselves. It's the kind of turf war that occurs throughout society, from boardrooms to children's playgrounds. In this case, the tussle is between two political allies, one an heir apparent and the other a very lame duck.
At stake is the kind of juicy bone politicians savor: A checkbook worth millions that can nurture their own political organizations, the ability to reward loyal supporters with coveted delegate badges at the Republican national convention in San Diego, and control over extra floor passes and the best hotel suites.
Listening to aides of both Lungren and Wilson, there is one logical conclusion: Dole promised each more than he can deliver; certainly less than meets the eye.
Dole now has three California "chairmen." Wilson is the "general chairman." Lungren is "campaign chairman." And former Gov. George Deukmejian is "honorary chairman."
"It's a big table with a lot of chairs," quips one Dole adviser. Says another: "It's just throwing out titles."
The role of "honorary" chairman is self-explanatory. Deukmejian's name will appear on fund-raising letters and he'll sit at head tables.
But Wilson and Lungren both think they were told by Dole, in essence: "You're my No. 1 guy in California."
Let's back up. Lungren had planned to endorse Dole last winter but angrily held off when Wilson entered the race. After Wilson's campaign died on Sept. 29, Lungren and Deukmejian let the body cool for a few days and then joined Dole.
Then last Thursday, Wilson sent word to Dole through his campaign chairman, Craig Fuller, that he wanted to endorse the senator. Says one California politico: "The train had left the station and the governor wanted to get on board."
On Saturday, Lungren introduced Dole to a Western GOP meeting in Las Vegas and afterward rode with him to the airport. Dole informed Lungren of Wilson's probable endorsement. But, according to a person familiar with the conversation, Dole assured Lungren that "no matter who comes on board, you're still going to be my chairman, in charge of the Dole organization in California."
Then on Monday in Washington, just before their joint appearance at an endorsement news conference, Dole and Wilson met privately. And Dole told Wilson, according to somebody familiar with this conversation, that he expected the governor to head up his California campaign.
After the endorsement, Lungren spokesman Dave Puglia insisted that "Dole wants Dan to be No. 1."
"That's wrong," countered Wilson spokesman Dan Schnur. "Fuller spoke to [Dole campaign manager] Scott Reed and Scott made it clear that Pete Wilson will be in charge of their California campaign. He said he didn't know where all this other stuff was coming from."
On Wednesday, Fuller reiterated: "My understanding is that the Dole people are looking to the governor to be in overall charge of their campaign effort here. . . . But this is going to take a couple of weeks to figure out."
Perhaps not that long.
William B. Lacy, Dole's national deputy chairman, said Wednesday: "Dan Lungren has been helpful to us for quite some time. He's the state chairman, the guy we're looking to to take the leadership of our day-to-day operation. We're also going to listen a lot to what Gov. Wilson has to say."
And, Lacy added, Dole will seek "guidance" from Deukmejian and his former chief of staff, Steven A. Merksamer, now a senior adviser.
That sounds like Lungren is No. 1. But this may be a continuing cartoon strip.