LOS ANGELES -- If Republican Gov. Pete Wilson breathes on his bathroom mirror as he shaves these mornings, it undoubtedly clouds up. For Mr. Wilson, long given up for dead in his quest for a second term, signs of life are clearly detectable:
* California's wildfires and earthquakes have enabled Mr. Wilson to repeatedly play the concerned chief executive on the scene before the TV cameras.
* The gap in the Los Angeles Times Poll by which he trails the front-running Democrat, State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, has gone from 15 points in October to 10; and the gap by which he trails State Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi has fallen from 18 points to 5.
* Ms. Brown's campaign has undergone a shake-up amid talk that she has not met expectations as a contender and has been letting Mr. Wilson off the hook on his record.
* UCLA economists who predicted California's deep slide into recession -- a prime cause of Mr. Wilson's weak political pulse -- report that the state's economy is "in recovery," with existing-home sales at the highest level in nearly four years.
* Mr. Wilson's outspoken support of the state's new "three strikes and out" life-imprisonment law and his proposal for a "one strike and out" law for convicted rapists have shifted attention to violent crime as the centerpiece campaign issue.
* His tough stand on immigration is popular: cuts in health and other social services to illegal immigrants, a demand that Washington pay for failing to stem the flow into California, and a threat to deny citizenship to children of illegal immigrants born in the state. The last is of dubious constitutionality, but it plays with frustrated taxpayers.
Numbers run his way
As the Times poll indicates, Mr. Wilson has not achieved full political recovery. But he has come back enough to be able to joke about his situation. "I see a lot of faces out there who helped me get where I am," he told an audience in Laguna Hills the other day, "and I want you to know, I've almost forgiven you."
The trend line in the polls, both public and private, is definitely running his way, with recent events playing into his strategy of making crime the centerpiece of the campaign by talking tough on criminals.
Residents are up in arms over a law requiring sentences to be halved for good behavior in prison. A serial rapist was recently paroled to a Northern California county, outraging local folks and triggering an attack on Mr. Wilson by Ms. Brown.
Mr. Wilson shot back that the sentencing judge had been appointed by her father, former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr., and that the law was passed when her brother, Jerry, was governor. Mr. Wilson insisted that he had worked to change the law but said his hands were tied. Newspaper editorials and columns in the state accused Ms. Brown of shooting from the hip.
Mr. Wilson has since stepped up his anti-crime rhetoric. "We need to give brutal killers the penalty they deserve," he told a South Orange County Chambers of Commerce luncheon the other day. "Take a life, and pay for it with your own."
And he deplored the law that says, in his words, "if you do a good job folding shirts in the prison laundry, you can be out in half the time."
Ms. Brown insists that Mr. Wilson's tough talk comes late, after more than three years in office. Speaking to the California Lawyers for Human Rights here the other night, she referred to the governor as "Rip Van Wilson, who wakes up in an election year with election-year rhetoric [on] these hot-button issues."
Mr. Wilson, she said, "would like this election to be about crime. That's fine with me. Do you believe you're safer than you were four years ago?"
But Ms. Brown's position on the death penalty -- she says she opposes it personally but would enforce it as governor -- can undercut her effectiveness in waging the anti-crime debate.
Talking of the speculation that Ms. Brown's campaign is slipping, Mr. Wilson said in an interview: "She's widely suspected of being soft on crime, because I think she is. It matters that she's conscientiously against the death penalty. If in good conscience she doesn't believe in the death penalty, she should find some alternative."
Ms. Brown counters in another interview: "I hold Pete Wilson responsible for the crime issue. He's been governor four years, and the Republicans for 12."
But Ms. Brown does not take lightly Mr. Wilson, a hard-knuckle campaigner effective at keeping his opponent on the defensive. That is one reason why she has brought on Clint Reilly, a San Francisco political consultant who has a reputation for attack-oriented campaigns.
Primary comes first
Ms. Brown's campaign is focusing increasingly on Mr. Wilson, although she still has the Democratic primary June 7 to get past. Mr. Garamendi is a personable and confident contender, but she is comfortably ahead of him in the polls and far ahead of the other candidate, state Sen. Tom Hayden, who appears to be using the campaign essentially as a platform for his pointedly liberal views.
Mr. Garamendi labors under a severe financial handicap. Ms. Brown has a campaign treasury of about $5 million, to Mr. Garamendi's $58,000 at the most recent filing. He is holding "workdays" in each of the state's 58 counties and then will highlight them with paid TV ads in the closing weeks of the primary.
He says he will raise money as he needs it and will be working side by side with Californians, hoping that local news media will get the story out. "I'm not going to sit here and dial for dollars," he says, referring on the fund-raising that campaigning has in large part become.
Ms. Brown points to the success that two female Democratic candidates, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, have had with female voters in California. At the same time, internal polls indicate resistance among conservative suburban male voters who like Mr. Wilson's tough talk on crime.
The fact that what Mr. Wilson is saying on any issue is worrying Democrats shows how far he has been resurrected as a candidate. A year ago, the once-lively speculation about Pete Wilson as a 1996 presidential prospect was drawing laughter. Now, there is talk that he is being asked anew about his availability if he wins another term as governor.
To that, all he will say now is: "I am not a candidate. I'm running for a second term for the job I've always wanted.
"Having governed in the most difficult economic times since the Great Depression, I'm frankly looking forward to being able to govern when we have not only recovered . . . without increasing taxes, in fact in a time when we can decrease taxes [and] still be able to provide more investment and the kind of preventive programs which I am convinced are the real key to a much better future."
What does that mean for '96? "It means I'm going to be right here," he says.
So he is not making a Sherman-like disavowal?
"Listen," he says, "I can make any number of Sherman-like statements, and people will either be skeptical or not as they choose, but I am not a candidate."
That doesn't sound like a definite "No, never." At any rate, first he has to complete the resurrection.