WASHINGTON -- The emotional high point of Pete Wilson's Senate career came when he was flat on his back.

Sometime after midnight on May 10, 1985, barely 24 hours after major abdominal surgery, he was wheeled into the Capitol on a hospital gurney to cast the deciding vote on a deficit-cutting proposal.

As Mr. Wilson starts his run for the Republican presidential nomination, his base in vote-rich California is, to many politicians, his most formidable asset. But to those who have worked with -- and against -- him over the years, his secret weapons are the grit and fortitude he showed that night.

"He's got mental resolve and determination and focus," says his friend Jim Lake, a Washington lobbyist. "He doesn't back down."

Mr. Wilson, now in his second term as governor, is expected to formally announce his candidacy in May. Though few Americans would recognize his face today, his entry into the race makes him one of the top contenders for the nomination, along with Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.

"He's tough," says Bob Mulholland, a California Democratic adviser. "He's run for office 19 times and lost only once. No one should underestimate him. He's certainly capable of doing what is necessary to win."

Boyishly handsome at 61, Mr. Wilson still speaks in the flat accent of his Midwestern youth, with a voice that has been likened to Johnny Carson's. His style is more bland than bold, a laid-back persona ideally suited, it seems, to California, where campaigns are waged mostly on TV. In the flesh, however, he can come across as cold and remote.

His politics are more pragmatic than ideological -- moderately conservative on economics, moderately liberal on social questions, particularly abortion and gay rights. Brazen is more like it, say critics in both parties, who accuse him of switching positions with alarming frequency.

A case in point: When Mr. Wilson announced this week, with great fanfare, that he was forming a presidential exploratory committee, he did so from the Los Angeles headquarters of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers' Association, named for the author of Proposition 13, the 1978 tax-slashing ballot measure. Mr. Wilson opposed Proposition 13 at the time, and is already being attacked by his GOP rivals for the $7 billion tax increase he signed in his first year as governor.

The sheer size of his home state -- with one-fifth of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency -- is enough, by itself, to make him a serious threat to be on the 1996 ticket. Mr. Wilson adds to that an impressive fund-raising ability that should allow him to get, with relative ease, the $20 million or so he needs for a national campaign.

His greatest asset, however, may be his uncanny ability to match his message to the mood of the voters.

"He uses issues very effectively as a replacement for charisma," says Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles Democratic strategist who managed two losing campaigns against Mr. Wilson.

In 1990, Mr. Wilson supported term limits for lawmakers before the idea caught on nationwide and, with fear of crime spreading, pushed for one of the toughest three-strikes-and-out laws in the country. In 1994, he blamed illegal immigration for many of his state's economic problems and championed a successful ballot initiative to cut off education, welfare and health benefits to illegal aliens.

Today, while some Republicans in Washington, such as Mr. Dole, are scrambling to oppose affirmative action, Mr. Wilson is already there.

As he sets his sights on the White House, Mr. Wilson is running as an outsider, even though he spent most of the 1980s in Washington. In the Senate, he did not establish himself as much of a leader on national issues, having spent his time mainly on home-state issues.

Re-elected in 1988, he quit after two years to become governor, explaining that he had always been more comfortable in executive positions. He served as mayor of San Diego from 1971 to 1983, after five years in the state Assembly.

An Illinois native, he grew up in St. Louis, the son of a prosperous ad executive, attended prep school and Yale. After serving in the Marine Corps, he earned a law degree at the University of California at Berkeley. He settled in San Diego, where he worked for two years at a law firm before becoming a career politician.

He got his start in politics as an advance man in Richard M. Nixon's unsuccessful 1962 gubernatorial campaign. (In his eulogy at the former president's funeral last year, Mr. Wilson recalled "the great lesson of Richard Nixon's life: Never give up. Never give up. Never, ever, give up."). He's been married twice and has no children of his own; his wife, Gayle, a San Diego civic activist, has two sons from a previous marriage.

On the home front, Mr. Wilson must overcome resistance to his presidential ambitions from state Republicans who fear what would happen if he won and the liberal Democratic lieutenant governor, Gray Davis, became governor.

Then there's The Pledge. In his remarkable race last year -- 20 points behind in the polls at the start, he came back to win by 15 -- Mr. Wilson said he would not seek the presidency in 1996, a broken promise that his GOP rivals are only too glad to mention.

To many Democrats, Mr. Wilson would be virtually unbeatable in a general election matchup against President Clinton, whose re-election chances depend heavily on winning California again in 1996.

For Mr. Wilson, the real struggle will be to avoid early elimination in the nomination race. If he is to score an early breakthrough in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr. Wilson may have to exercise some one-on-one retail campaign muscles he hasn't used for more than a decade (the Maryland primary, two weeks after New Hampshire, could be an early Wilson target).

In New Hampshire, conservative Republicans with long memories recall how he went there in 1976 to campaign for President Gerald R. Ford against Ronald Reagan -- and blamed Mr. Reagan for signing the biggest tax increase in California history, the same charge now being used against Mr. Wilson. And everywhere, his views on social issues -- he has signed gay-rights legislation and is the only major Republican contender who favors abortion rights -- make him unacceptable to religious conservatives, expected to play a key role in the nomination process.

One sign of his potential strength is the speed with which his rivals are taking aim at Mr. Wilson. This week, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander branded him a liberal for having signed the 1991 tax increase and having opposed school vouchers.

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