NEW YORK -- California Gov. Pete Wilson kicked off his presidential campaign yesterday by vowing to secure the nation's borders, get tough on crime, shrink government and end racial preferences.
Standing beneath a sparkling summer sky in New York's Battery Park, the 62-year-old Republican cast himself as a can-do conservative with a proven record of achievement in the nation's most populous state.
"The difference between the others and me is clear. They promise. As governor, I've delivered," he said in becoming the ninth Republican to formally enter the '96 race. "I believe America wants a leader with the courage of his convictions -- right now."
Right now, though, it is not clear if he can attract a following.
Mr. Wilson remains all but unknown outside his home state. He is running well back in the early opinion polls and, according to his conservative critics, he leans too far to the left politically to capture the Republican nomination.
However, the wide-open GOP contest and his own history as an effective campaigner -- he came from 20 percentage points behind to win re-election last time -- are reasons why Republican politicians have been reluctant to write him off, despite his slow start.
Mr. Wilson chose the park in lower Manhattan, overlooking the blue-green waters of New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty, to dramatize his call for overhauling the nation's immigration laws. He criticized President Clinton for failing to control the nation's borders and for permitting millions of illegal immigrants to enter the country every year.
"Washington actually rewards these lawbreakers by forcing states to give them benefits paid for by the taxpayers. That's like giving free room service to someone who breaks into a hotel," he said to applause from a small crowd of supporters.
The same anti-illegal immigrant message helped turn around his 1994 re-election campaign, despite harsh criticism from Democrats and some fellow Republicans.
Yesterday morning, several dozen immigrant rights demonstrators attempted to disrupt his speech, chanting "Pete Wilson go home." One held a sign that read "Pete Wilson: The George Wallace of the Nineties." Said another: "Some campaign -- Racism, Nativism, Fear, Division."
The Californian's presence at the head of the 1996 GOP ticket might give Republicans a better chance of carrying his state and its 54 electoral votes, which Clinton aides say are vital to the president's re-election. The hard-edged themes of Mr. Wilson's announcement speech -- echoed by campaign commercials that began running yesterday in New Hampshire, the first primary state -- are aimed squarely at the conservative voters who dominate Republican politics.
The governor is betting that the commercials will define him, in positive terms, as a shrewd political pragmatist who has "the courage to do something" about problems facing the country.
His critics have portrayed him otherwise: as a cynical opportunist who has repeatedly tailored his views to changing public attitudes.
Mr. Wilson calls the flip-flop charge a false one. But when he began speaking out this year against racial preferances in employment and college admissions, he was forced to say his earlier embrace of affirmative action had been a mistake.
At the same time, he's been attacked for his longtime support for abortion rights, which puts him at odds with his party's official anti-abortion position and all but one of the other GOP presidential candidates, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
A social moderate, Mr. Wilson has signed a gay rights measure into law, supported gun control and, in 1991, signed into law a $7 billion tax bill, the largest state tax increase in U.S. history.
"Wilson fundamentally doesn't fit our primary," said Mike Murphy, a strategist for former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, another "outsider" in the race, who yesterday began running radio ads in New Hampshire attacking Mr. Wilson.
Mr. Wilson has been on the defensive over character issues. He was embarrassed by the disclosure earlier that he and his first wife employed an undocumented worker in the 1970s. And many Californians have yet to forgive him for breaking a 1994 campaign pledge to serve out his term as governor, if re-elected.
"Promises sometimes change because of the circumstances," he said in a TV interview yesterday.
"California's a little angry right now at Pete Wilson," said campaign manager George Gorton, by way of explaining polls that show Mr. Wilson trailing Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas among Republican voters in his home state.
Perhaps the most difficult political challenge Mr. Wilson faces is finding a state where he can win early in 1996. His aides acknowledge that he must win somewhere before the California primary on March 26.
He is targeting the New England states, which have a large number of moderate Republican voters and a slew of early primaries, as well as New York, where he hopes to go one-on-one with Mr. Dole March 7. Joining Mr. Wilson on the podium yesterday was Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld, his national finance chairman; New York Republican officials were noticeably absent.
Mr. Wilson actually began his campaign six months ago but delayed his formal announcement after losing his voice after surgery last spring to remove a cyst from his vocal chords.
His only election loss was in the 1978 California gubernatorial primary, when he finished fourth. Among the factors blamed for his defeat were his failure to support the property tax-cutting Proposition 13 and his active support for President Gerald Ford over fellow Californian Ronald Reagan in the 1976 Republican primaries.
New Hampshire voters are being reminded of that long-ago race by Mr. Alexander, whose radio ads attacking Mr. Wilson claim that he once called Mr. Reagan "the worst governor in California history." Mr. Wilson, who denies having ever made that remark, deplored the Alexander attack as "sad" and "pathetic."
Born: Aug. 23, 1933 in Lake Forest, Ill. Raised in St. Louis, Mo.
Education: Bachelor's degree, English literature, Yale University, 1955; Law degree, University of California at Berkeley, 1962.
Military service: Infantry officer, U.S. Marine Corps, 1955-1958.
Career highlights: Practiced law in San Diego for a short time before moving into Republican politics. Represented San Diego in the California legislature, 1966-1971; mayor of San Diego, 1971-1983; U.S. senator, 1983-1991; governor of California, 1991-present.
Family: Married since 1983 to Gayle Wilson, his second marriage. Two stepsons.
Republican presidential candidates:
* Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), former governor and education secretary
* Patrick J. Buchanan (Virginia), TV commentator and former White House aide.
* Sen. Bob Dole (Kansas), Senate Majority Leader.
* Rep. Robert K. Dornan (California)
* Sen. Phil Gramm (Texas)
* Alan L. Keyes (Maryland), radio host and former Senate candidate.
* Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Indiana)
* Sen. Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania)
* Gov. Pete Wilson (California)