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Wilson's big selling point: Only he can beat Clinton


NORTH HAMPTON, N.H. -- Surveying the 80 or so Republicans who had gathered on Bonnie Newman's lawn to listen to Pete Wilson the other day, Arthur Tufts observed that he was the only member of the Legislature in the entire group.

Given the fact there are 430 members of the New Hampshire House alone, that was passing remarkable.

It was also a comment on Wilson's position here as he begins to campaign for the New Hampshire primary next Feb. 20.

On the one hand, the California governor has stimulated enough interest to attract these 80 listeners, a respectable turnout on a sunny Saturday afternoon at this stage of the campaign.

On the other, it underlined the conventional wisdom that Wilson is running light years behind Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole with the office-holding Republican establishment.

Wilson seems unfazed by the prospect of competing with seven other Republicans to overtake Dole. On the contrary, he gives the impression he is spoiling for a fight.

Asked if he expects the contest to develop into more direct confrontations with his fellow Republicans, Wilson replies that this will "happen inescapably" and adds pointedly: "And I'm not going to try to escape it."

The outlines of his approach are at least vaguely visible in his speech to the well-dressed uptown Republicans on Ms. Newman's lawn, many of them party moderates drawn to a supporter of abortion rights.

Wilson is getting into the race, he says, because people tell him that President Clinton will be hard to beat and that he has the "track record" to do it. "I have a history of winning," he says. "I don't think you should run just for exercise."

Moreover, he argues, he has shown that he can win by confronting issues that concern voters -- illegal immigration, affirmative action, welfare reform, crime -- rather than "because I unleashed my charisma," a wry comment on his reputation for dullness.

The clear implication, of course, is that he would have a better chance of defeating President Clinton than others in the field. And, he concedes in an interview, he has enjoyed the fact that "other people" -- meaning some political analysts and some Democrats -- "are saying it for me."

At this point, however, Wilson is a little short of supporting data. Opinion polls show Dole not only leading the other Republicans by runaway margins but clearly the strongest opponent for Clinton.

Even if you concede those polls tell a lot more about candidates' name recognition than real political strength, you have to recognize they are the only measure available until Republicans start voting in the primaries.

Wilson's niche in the Republican field here inevitably is based to a large degree on his position as the only candidate other than Sen. Arlen Specter who supports abortion rights -- meaning the only candidate with any realistic chance of being nominated who supports abortion rights.

The trick for him now is to avoid being viewed only through the prism of that issue.

"It isn't the only thing, far from it," he tells a reporter. "People are interested in your particular vision and what your plans are for achieving it."

So Wilson hammers away at familiar conservative themes, railing in mild tones against "endless spending programs as a substitute for personal responsibility" and defending his support for the Proposition 187 initiative that cut services to illegal aliens in California by depicting it as simple "fairness" designed to protect taxpayers.

And he is acerbic, if not testy, in rebutting the notion that the measure was aimed at all immigrants. "California doesn't need any lectures on the value of legal immigrants," he says here.

Whether Wilson has the formula for winning presidential primaries won't be clear for several months. But there is no argument about his having identified the goal of the party rank and file.

At a picnic in Gilmanton, a state legislator named Bob Lafram explained to a reporter and Craig Fuller, Wilson's campaign chairman, that he is supporting Dole because he is a retired military man and feels a kinship with the Senate leader because of his war record.

But Fuller smiled when he added: "Hell, we just want somebody who can win."

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