LAGUNA HILLS, Calif. -- Looking over his audience at the South Orange County Chambers of Commerce here the other afternoon, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson smiled and said: "I see a lot of faces out there who helped me get where I am. And I want you to know -- I've almost forgiven you."
The resultant laughter was a recognition of the ordeal Wilson has had in three-plus years of running the nation's largest, and one of its most troubled, states.
California, once considered the mainland paradise and prime magnet for Americans on the move, has been mired in recession almost the whole time. Wilson has been plagued by an influx of illegal immigrants straining state services to the breaking point and throwing the state budget into chaos. The state has been wracked by fires and earthquakes and increasingly plagued by wanton crime in city streets and suburban bedrooms.
Touted after his gubernatorial victory over Democratic luminary Dianne Feinstein in 1990 as a hot presidential prospect for 1996, Wilson was so battered that less than a year ago he was being projected as a one-term governor going nowhere.
But a series of natural and political events, a deft image-rebuilding job and stumbling by a prospective Democratic opponent have lifted him into competitive position in the polls and even, in the view of many longtime political watchers here, into front-runner status.
The huge wildfires in Southern California last fall and the subsequent earthquake brought him heavy television coverage as the concerned chief executive on the spot. The picture of Pete Wilson in blue jeans and yellow rain slicker became regular fare on newscasts across the state.
On top of that, the Democrat running ahead in the polls, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, has had major image and campaign organization problems leading to a recent staff shake-up -- and much news media criticism as a candidate who does not have her act together. The Los Angeles Times poll just out has her earlier lead over Wilson of 15 percent cut to 10 percent. (He also trails Brown's Democratic primary challenger, state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, by 5 percent.)
Wilson's own aggressive posture on two increasingly critical issues in the state -- immigration and crime -- have probably been as much a factor in his comeback as the natural disasters or Kathleen Brown's campaign woes. On both issues, he has struck a responsive chord with a depressed and angry electorate that surveys indicate feels California is no longer paradise.
Last summer Wilson launched a broad attack on federal immigration policy, blaming Washington's failure to seal the border with Mexico for the strain on state social services. He has proposed not only cutting off certain services to illegals but denying U.S. citizenship to their children born here -- a dubious constitutional move but a popular one with many conservative white taxpayers.
More recently, Wilson has seized on mushrooming violent crime to push some of his more stringent solutions, including "three strikes and out" legislation enacted amid the public outrage against random and drive-by murders.
Sentencing for violent crime has been further elevated in the gubernatorial campaign by the recent release to a state parole camp in remote, rural Northern California of a man convicted of multiple rapes. The man served only half of his sentence of 25 years under state regulations mandating such time off for good prison behavior.
Residents of the nearby small town were up in arms at the news and demanded that Wilson act. Brown jumped in, castigating Wilson. He shot back that he had no legal power to reverse the decision on a sentence from a judge appointed by her father, former Gov. Pat Brown, and handed down during the tenure of her brother, former Gov. Jerry Brown. News media in the state roundly judged that Brown had misfired from the hip.
To cap all this, a UCLA study just out says that at long last an economic recovery may be under way in the state -- if true, the best political medicine Wilson could hope for. In this season of resurrection, the patient seems to have a pulse.