WASHINGTON -- It was either the start of the silly season or evidence that Pete Wilson's public relations men are already hitting the panic button in his late-starting, almost-declared 1996 presidential campaign.
The California governor's schedulers, trotting him out at a minor-league baseball game in Iowa over the weekend as part of the kickoff of his campaign for the state's first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses, put out a press release quoting him as saying:
"Just as these Boys of Summer, I'm out here in Iowa looking to make some big plays."
The PR boys then underscored this forgettable comment with a goofy list of "Great Dates in the History of Baseball" including "April 15, 1888 -- First professional baseball game played in Des Moines" and "Oct. 2, 1991 -- Gov. Pete Wilson signed as free agent to the San Diego Padres."
Accompanying the "Great Dates" were a copy of Wilson's contract with the Padres pledging the team to pay him $1 for the 1992 season and a Los Angeles Times clipping and photo showing him "snaring an orange . . . thrown at him by a protester at Stanford University" during a 1991 speech. That catch led the Padres, as a gag, to offer him the contract.
Presidential politics can always use a few laughs, but Wilson needs a new writer. Other remarks attributed to Wilson in the press release suggested that his recent inability to speak above a rasp as a result of slow recuperation from minor throat surgery may have been a political blessing.
"Iowa is proud to claim the first caucus in the nation, making this Midwestern campaign stop a veritable 'field of dreams' for presidential hopefuls," the handout said, referring cutely to the baseball movie of some seasons back filmed in an Iowa cornfield.
Then it quoted Wilson again, saying, "This is just the top of the first inning, and we've got the team to win!"
Well, it may be the first inning for Pete Wilson, but the other Republican candidates have been, as the Wilson wordsmiths might put it, toiling on the mound for some time.
That is especially so of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who won the Iowa caucuses in 1988 and is running far ahead in the most recent poll of likely caucus attendees taken by the firm of PSI of Alexandria, Va.
In that survey, Dole has 49.7 percent to 10.7 percent for Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and only 1.3 percent for Wilson among the other also-rans.
Wilson, dismissing the polls, told the Associated Press in Des Moines that "we have a habit of changing the polls," which is true. He was considered a gone goose for re-election in California in early 1994 but went on and won impressively in November. Rivals who have underestimated him have lived to regret it.
But Wilson is taking on a formidable task in deciding to jump into the Iowa caucus contest, in which the 1996 process for selecting Republican National Convention delegates will start. The other challengers to Dole apparently are competing in Iowa in the hope that Dole will self-destruct or, failing that, they will be able to make a strong second-place showing and win recognition as Dole's chief opponent going into the New Hampshire primary eight days later.
But as governor of the largest state, Wilson brings high expectations with him whenever and wherever he enters a campaign. Strategically, he can ill afford to run weaker than second in Iowa or elsewhere and hope to arouse much national interest.
Also, he has had his success in a state where mass-media advertising and exposure have been critical and effective. Iowa, by contrast, is famed for door-to-door retail politics, and Wilson has a distinctly cool and bland personality.
Some of Wilson's high expectations seem already to have worn off as a result of the fits and starts in his campaign forced by his surgery and other delays in launching an all-out effort.
He is going to have to move far beyond the cosmetics of politics -- like going to ballgames and giving out sophomoric quotes -- to substantive policy discussion to ignite his campaign.
As a leader in forging Republican positions on immigration and affirmative action, however, he has the currently hot issues to do it.