Keep an Eye on Pete Wilson


With Dan Quayle out of the race for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, the spotlight shines ever more brightly on two Inside-the-Beltway contenders: Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas and Phil Gramm of Texas.

But don't let the early line fool you. Before this marathon is over, a bunch of GOP governors will be heard from. Most especially Pete Wilson of California. And if he is the stopper of a Dole or Gramm bandwagon, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, John Engler of Michigan and William Weld of Massachusetts could jump in, thus creating the first open convention in a long, long time.

Right now, the major Outside-the-Beltway contestant is former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander. He might mop up a lot of moderate Republican votes while Messrs. Dole and Gramm keep chasing after Gingrich-influenced right-wingers. If Mr. Alexander places well in early contests, he could be the governor-candidate of choice.

Yet the weight of California's big bloc of convention votes can hardly be overestimated. While the Dole and Gramm campaigns scramble for $20 million war chests, Governor Wilson faces a lower hurdle. A California favorite son whose broad resume includes mayor of San Diego for 12 years and six years in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Wilson may need to raise only $8 million to be viable. He is, after all, the California governor who came from 30 points behind to win a second term last year despite riot, flood, draught, earthquake and recession.

To date, the list of GOP contenders has been imploding. In addition to Mr. Quayle, other dropouts include Jack Kemp and Dick Cheney, both members of the Bush cabinet, former drug czar William Bennett and former Gov. Carroll Campbell of South Carolina. This is odd, considering the vulnerability of President Clinton. And it may not last.

Not only are a host of Republican governors waiting in the wings. The presidential bug is also getting to Sen. Richard Lugar, like Mr. Quayle an Indianian, and Pennsylvania's Sen. Arlen Specter. Television provocateur Pat Buchanan could come in with Christian Right support. So could former Secretary of State James Baker. Then there is retired Gen. Colin Powell, potentially the Ike of 1996. But with 55 percent of the American people telling pollsters they think Mr. Clinton should be a one-term president, the GOP need for a charismatic, apolitical outsider may be diminishing.

Political headlines will keep going to senators active on the national stage. But only two of their predecessors, Warren Harding and John Kennedy, made it directly to the White House in this century. So our advice is to keep an eye on Governor Wilson. A moderate close to the American mainstream, he could move the GOP to just right of center, where it belongs. The party's 1996 National Convention, by way of stage-setting, will be held in San Diego -- Pete Wilson's home base.

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