SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Retired presidential candidate Pete Wilson champs a bit when he is asked how it feels to be back in the governor's chair after his brief, ill-fated flirtation with White House residency. He says he never stopped being a working governor, though "the coverage of the campaign . . . created the impression I had gotten on a plane, waved goodbye and left the state forever."
In fact, he says, having had to labor into August getting his state budget through a legislature "in disarray" was a major factor in his inability to conduct a more effective campaign. But he is back full time now and has just finished reviewing and signing the bulk of 575 bills heaped on his desk by the legislature.
"It is nice to be able to work only one job," he admits, and says it has been "heartening and heartwarming to be well received" by many Californians after his disappointing bid for national office.
Upon returning, though, some greetings have not been so heartwarming. Labor unions have attacked him for a new cost-cutting plan to privatize significant state programs now carried out by public employees, charging it threatens the state's civil service system. Mr. Wilson denies it.
Also, some women's groups have expressed outrage over his veto of a bill that would have obliged insurance companies to pay for certain contraceptives. Mr. Wilson, whose long support of abortion rights bucked the conservative Republican line in his presidential bid, says he still sees contraceptives as a key weapon in combating unwanted pregnancy. But the bill he vetoed, he says, would have put undue burden on small employers and targeted birth-control aid to women otherwise already eligible for it.
These developments have triggered editorial suggestions that Mr. Wilson is motivated by a desire to repair his image and standing with business and anti-abortion groups after his disastrous national campaign. His response is caustic and weary: "Everything I do is for some nefarious purpose. First, everything that I was doing was for re-election [as governor]. Then everything I was doing was to run for president. Now everything I'm doing is to revive my fortunes."
Another matter that clearly sticks in Mr. Wilson's craw is the indication that Californians didn't buy the reason he gave when he broke his 1994 re-election campaign promise not to run for president in 1996 -- that he could do more for the state from the White House than from the governor's chair.
That broken promise has been cited by others -- though not by Mr. Wilson -- as a main cause of insufficient financial support in California for his presidential adventure. But he continues to insist that this rationale for running was valid because the state in his view has suffered so greatly with Bill Clinton in the White House.
Mr. Wilson, who has acknowledged he didn't do an adequate job of persuading Californians of how much damage Mr. Clinton was doing to them, says now he intends to make up for that failure by telling them about it between now and the next presidential election.
While the president was taking advantage of California's earthquake and other natural disasters to make high-profile visits to the state and funnel in federal relief, Mr. Wilson says, defense cutbacks and base closings, failed immigration policy and a host of environmental and other regulatory actions all cost California jobs and money.
Mr. Wilson is obviously strongly motivated for these reasons to help the eventual Republican nominee (he has now endorsed Sen. Bob Dole) beat Mr. Clinton in California: It is the president's top November priority and the one state his aides concede he needs to be re-elected.
The governor created a stir recently when he was reported as saying he was led to believe Senator Dole would ask him to be his running mate, and that had Bob Dole done so, he would not have run for president. What he actually said was he would not have said no right then, but on reflection he didn't want to be vice president. And he says now he doesn't, considering being governor of California a better job.
At the same time, however, Mr. Wilson cannot seek re-election in 1998 as a result of California's term limits. So speculation inevitably will grow about whether he might be looking for a cabinet post in a Republican administration elected in November. He says he's not interested in that either, and seems refocused on the job he has, after having split his time and energies for months seeking what indisputably is a better one.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.