GILMANTON, N.H. -- Trailing eight rivals by five months or more, Gov. Pete Wilson of California plunged into the New Hampshire presidential primary campaign during the weekend and quickly discovered both its pleasures and its pitfalls.
Mr. Wilson was given the kind of news media attention accorded a major player in the campaign for a primary still eight months away as he went through the time-honored rituals for candidates here.
He began in Portsmouth on Saturday, spending an hour in Market Square trying to escape from a cocoon of television crews and reporters long enough to shake a few hands of potential voters, many of whom proved to be puzzled tourists asking reporters who he was.
But an hour later he was given a warm reception by about 80 Republican activists who gathered in North Hampton at the oceanfront home of Bonnie Newman, a former official under President George Bush and longtime party leader here.
He also sat for an interview with WMUR-TV, the Manchester television station that politicians here now consider the single most important news outlet in the state.
And, like all presidential candidates who run here, he seized on events that would provide a chance for him to meet more voters -- an "Olde Home Day" celebration at the North Hampton fire house and a state convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Nashua on Saturday and a Belknap County Republican picnic here yesterday.
Mr. Wilson's trip here -- his first other than a courtesy call on Gov. Stephen Merrill last spring -- came several weeks before the formal announcement of his candidacy back home in California and was clearly intended to put an end to speculation he might not run because of the continuing problems he has had with the effects of a minor throat operation.
Asked in an interview if he was responding to pressure to prove his commitment, Mr. Wilson replied: "In part, in part. There were some ugly and false rumors coming out of the East that I had throat cancer and was going to drop out of the race."
The throat condition has improved to the point that Mr. Wilson was able to talk 12 to 15 minutes continuously in North Hampton and Nashua, although his voice broke on a few occasions.
Base closing dilemma
Voice problems aside, the California governor had to tiptoe around one touchy issue when he told reporters in Portsmouth that he wanted President Clinton to set aside the latest recommendations on the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) that would cost his own state about 18,000 jobs at the Long Beach Navy Yard and several other bases.
Mr. Wilson made the comments just after Portsmouth had spent two days celebrating the BRAC report because it spared the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. And several Republicans here said people in New Hampshire now fear any reopening of the base-closing question.
"Don't quote me, but he might have been smarter to ignore the whole issue right now," a Republican listening at the North Hampton gathering said.
Mr. Wilson praised the decision to save the Portsmouth facility but argued that the whole BRAC process should be discarded because it has been based on a premise never fulfilled -- that President Clinton would present "a plan that would allow us to wisely and safely downsize our force strength and base structure without injury."
Mr. Wilson spent much of his energy spelling out his criticisms of the Clinton administration and trying to establish his own political bona fides as an alternative to other Republicans who already have organizations operating in this first-primary state.
The underlying theme, if there was one, was that Mr. Wilson is a proven winner who can defeat Bill Clinton. "I have a history of winning," he said. "I don't think you should run just for exercise."
The conventional wisdom here, supported by some early opinion polls, is that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is the clear favorite in the primary competition. And he enjoys the support of Sen. Judd Gregg, both Republican congressmen and dozens of state and local officeholders.
Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas has the backing of Sen. Robert C.
Smith and has been coming into the state at least once a month for more than a year now. But unaligned Republicans say that Mr. Gramm has not yet caught fire with the party electorate. And Governor Merrill, who had been expected to back Mr. Gramm, has instead been sharply critical of what he considers the Texan's failure to defend New Hampshire's tradition of holding the first presidential primary every four years.
Two candidates ordinarily assigned to the "second tier" of the Republican field have shown some strength here. Former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is credited with a strong campaign organization built over the past year, and conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan has shown he still has a following among conservatives who backed him when he won 37 percent of the vote against Mr. Bush in the 1988 primary here.
Offering a choice
Mr. Wilson used his first opportunity in the state to try to define himself as a clear choice on issues other than the one that most distinguishes him from the field -- his support for abortion rights. At North Hampton, he told listeners sitting in bright sunlight on Ms. Newman's lawn that he has "a track record" as a leader who recognizes and acts on issues while "those inside the Beltway are filling the pages of the Congressional Record."
He won an uphill race for re-election last year, he said wryly, not because "I unleashed my charisma" but because he identified and acted on issues such as affirmative action and illegal immigration that concerned California voters.
He depicted his support for abortion rights as a truly conservative position against government interference in people's lives. "If you don't want government intrusion in your business, how in the world can you accept government intrusion in your bedroom?" he asked.
The only other Republican candidate who supports abortion rights is Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who has made little headway here so far.