SAN DIEGO -- A year ago, Gov. Pete Wilson of California had hopes of coming here to the Republican National Convention to receive his party's 1996 presidential nomination. Instead, he has come as the convention's most prominent fly in the ointment on the abortion issue.
Last August, Governor Wilson formally declared his candidacy for the nomination but a series of mishaps, political and personal, persuaded him in late September to withdraw. He was mired in single digits in the horserace polls and was struggling to raise money and to overcome the after-effects of throat surgery that made him a rasping, ineffective campaigner.
Soon after his withdrawal, Mr. Wilson jumped aboard Bob Dole's bandwagon as his California chairman and even got some early mention as a possible Dole running mate. But that notion faded as Mr. Wilson continued to have trouble recovering from a major political misstep at home -- having broken his 1994 re-election pledge to complete his new four-year term by his short, failed run for president.
Now the Californian is back in the national headlines, threatening a floor fight here next week if the rigid anti-abortion platform plank approved by the party's platform committee isn't softened to accommodate the sensitivities of abortion-rights advocates such as he.
Many here say Mr. Wilson's move amounted to locking the barn door after the horse was stolen. The platform subcommittee dealing with the issue had already accepted essentially the same plank as in the 1992 platform, backing a constitutional amendment barring abortion, after having stripped Dole-proposed language saying "tolerance is a virtue" that should be extended toward abortion-rights Republicans.
Opposition to that plank has been a long-held Wilson position, but four years ago he urged like-minded delegates not to stage a floor fight over it in deference to nominee George Bush.
But this time he said doing so then was "a doubtful kindness" to Mr. Bush that he did not intend to repeat for Senator Dole.
The Wilson plank, which focused on greater personal responsibility to prevent unwanted pregnancy and on expanded ideas for adoption, also specified: "Upon all foregoing points we agree as Republicans, whether conscientiously pro-life or conscientiously pro-choice. As Republicans, we acknowledge and respect the honest convictions that divide us on the question of abortion. Unlike the Democratic Party, we will not censor members of our party who hold opposing views on this issue. We are a party confident enough in our beliefs to tolerate dissent."
But when Sheila Carroll, a California member of the platform committee offered the plank as an amendment, announcing it was host Governor Wilson's handiwork, the committee summarily rejected it. Delegate David Perkins of Louisiana noted that every delegate could front for his or her governor with a proposed plank if those were the rules.
Mr. Wilson argued that the party's head was in the sand in continuing to press for a constitutional amendment that is "monumentally unpopular" in the country and "will never happen." He said the convention was turning its back on millions of Republicans who had told exit pollsters after they had voted in presidential primaries this year that they wanted no part of a flat abortion ban.
The amendment, he said, "is a damn poor substitute" for addressing "the social pathology that follows from children having no father" -- a view he has also emphasized in advancing ideas to provide adult mentors for children of unmarried teen-age mothers.
While Mr. Wilson's motives are being questioned in pressing his position in the face of Mr. Dole's clear desire to put the whole abortion issue behind him, he is no johnny-come-lately to the debate. Since abandoning his own campaign, for example, he has also beefed up efforts in California to prosecute cases of statutory rape of teen-agers who have become pregnant.
But his brief presidential bid underscores his political ambition. In bucking his candidate on this matter, Mr. Wilson inevitably gives rise to the question of whether he is positioning himself for the year 2000 if Mr. Dole loses -- and the GOP somehow frees itself of the strong Christian right influence that is at the core of its anti-abortion posture.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 8/09/96