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Wilson is expert at defying GOP conventional wisdom


WASHINGTON -- Pete Wilson didn't win two terms in the Senate and two as governor of California by being shy and deferential to other politicians and their opinions. So it should come as no surprise to find that he seems to have little patience with the conventional wisdom about his own campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

One of the tenets of that wisdom as defined by some of his rivals is, of course, that no supporter of abortion rights can be the Republican nominee.

But Wilson, who likes to describe himself as "pro-choice, not to be confused with pro-abortion," contends that more and more Republicans are coming to see that, as he puts it, "the issue has been settled" and it is time to move on to others -- a judgment that opinion polls reflect these days.

But Wilson recognizes that candidates can be defined by a single vote or a single issue if they allow it to happen. So he runs down a list of his conservative positions on such concerns as crime, affirmative action and welfare reform, and observes wryly, "A moderate is a pro-choice conservative."

A second tenet of the book on a Wilson candidacy is that a governor of a state as huge and distant as California cannot afford to give the time and personal attention to become a player in the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary and will have to rely too heavily on television advertising.

But, although reluctant to start talking game plans at this HTC embryonic stage of his candidacy, Wilson dismisses the notion he won't have the opportunity for one-on-one campaigning as well as 30-second spots.

"I think you've got to be there enough," he says, "so the television you do really responds to the audience you are attempting to reach." Even in a state as huge as California, he says, it's important to listen. "You can't sit in a studio in Los Angeles and make great television spots."

Iowa is obviously a special problem because of the running start Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole enjoys as both a neighbor from Kansas and as the winner of the caucuses there in 1988. And some political strategists believe Wilson and other rivals might be wise to concede the state to Dole and focus on New Hampshire.

There are, however, risks in such a strategy for anyone in the top tier of leading candidates, including Wilson.

The most obvious is that Dole might commit the kind of political blunder that would make him vulnerable -- and thus allow some other rival, such as Sen. Phil Gramm, to upset him and become the overnight dragon-slayer of his party.

Wilson is a little vague on his intentions in Iowa, although he is quick to point out that he grew up in neighboring Missouri and thus qualifies as a Midwesterner himself, as his flat accent seems to prove.

Iowans, he assures a visitor to his hotel suite two blocks from the White House, are fine people and California is "full of Iowans" -- a testament that probably could be applied to most states.

In fact, however, the future of Wilson's campaign probably rests far less on tactical or even strategic decisions than it does on its basic thrust. "We can do well in a lot of different states because we've got a better story to tell," he says.

Over the years, Wilson says he has found "my own instincts and my own gut reactions very often reflect" the concerns of his constituents.

That is clearly the reason, even his critics in California concede, that he has been either the first or among the first politicians to see the demand for things like three-strikes, anti-crime laws, action against illegal immigration and now against affirmative action.

And, he says, if his competitors from the right want to assail him for the $7 billion tax plan he promulgated to get the state through a financial crisis, "I would be delighted to compare records with anybody running." The state budget, he says, is $1.5 billion below what it was when he took office four years ago because, he adds, "we've cut the hell out of it."

In the long run, the specifics of Wilson's record are not likely to be decisive with primary voters in New Hampshire or New York, Michigan or Illinois who will be making their judgments a year from now.

They will be more interested in what they see of the candidates -- in person and on their television screens -- as potential presidents.

And, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Pete Wilson seems determined to give them ample opportunity to look him over.

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