WASHINGTON -- California Gov. Pete Wilson, the first casualty of the 1996 Republican presidential contest, threw his support yesterday to Sen. Bob Dole, calling him the party's best hope for defeating President Clinton next year.
The value of the endorsement may be limited, however, given Mr. Wilson's inability to generate voter enthusiasm during his own short-lived campaign. Even in his home state of California, the biggest electoral prize in the country, he's viewed negatively by most voters, the latest polls show.
Mr. Dole, meantime, trained his sights on a potential rival, Colin L. Powell, raising questions about the depth of the retired general's popularity and suggesting it might not survive a tough campaign.
Standing beside Mr. Dole during a news conference at Dole campaign headquarters, Mr. Wilson said he was not a candidate for vice president and would refuse that nomination if offered it.
"I am here because I think Bob Dole will make a great president," said the governor, who once hoped he would accept the presidential nomination at the GOP convention next August in his hometown of San Diego.
In backing Mr. Dole, Mr. Wilson said he was not interested in waiting for Mr. Powell, who plans to announce next month whether he will join the Republican presidential field.
"General Powell is a friend, and I admire him," said the governor, "but my decision to endorse Bob Dole really doesn't have anything to do with Colin Powell."
A printed statement released by the Dole campaign yesterday quoted Mr. Wilson as calling Mr. Dole "clearly the best general to lead Republicans into battle against Bill Clinton." But Mr. Wilson did not read those words when he made the endorsement, and a version of his advance text, issued by the governor's California office, did not contain such a line.
If Mr. Wilson seemed hesitant about taking a swipe at the popular ex-general, Mr. Dole showed no such unwillingness.
"I've always had the view that, in politics, you have two times when you're very popular with the people: the day before you get in and the day you get out," Mr. Dole said when asked about polls showing him trailing Mr. Powell.
For Mr. Dole, the backing of Mr. Wilson is the latest in a long string of Dole endorsements; the Californian is the 13th of the 30 GOP governors to endorse the Senate majority leader. Some analysts question the effectiveness of this approach.
"Dole is running a typical front-runner's strategy of getting all the big names and endorsements," said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster who has informally consulted with some Powell political advisers. "From years of polling, I've never seen where endorsements have helped you very much."
"What it really does is prevent any other presidential candidate from gaining Wilson's endorsement," said Mark diCamillo, director of the Field polling organization in San Francisco. "It forestalls a political pitfall that might befall Dole before the California primary" next March.
As a candidate, Mr. Wilson had criticized Mr. Dole as a Washington deal-cutter not fully committed to the reforms of the conservative Republican revolution. Yesterday, the governor saluted the senator's "gutsy leadership."
"I don't agree with Senator Dole on every issue, and that is not necessary," Mr. Wilson said.
Mr. Dole called the endorsement "a big boost." Mr. Wilson, he said, "knows almost everyone in that state. All the active Republicans. All the people who put up financial support."
Mr. Wilson is likely to take a largely honorary role in the Dole campaign in California, which is headed by state Attorney General Dan Lungren. A senior Republican politician in the state described the Wilson endorsement as essentially an effort by the governor to "come to closure" with his 1996 presidential ambitions.
"He's just pretty much taking himself out of the picture," Mr. diCamillo agreed. "If you had said six months ago that Wilson was not going to be a factor in California in '96, no one would have believed it."