Barkless Pete Wilson unleashes White House bid

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Proclaiming himself "the Republican the Clinton White House fears the most," California Governor Pete Wilson yesterday sought to breathe life into his stagnating bid for the presidency by promising to clamp down on crime and illegal immigration, and overhaul the country's welfare system.

Mr Wilson's speech, in a park at the southern tip of Manhattan, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, was billed as his formal entry into the 1996 campaign. In fact, that campaign has been under way for several weeks, and his appearance in New York was only the latest of several high- profile forays to the East Coast.

But a man whose job ensured he was automatically counted one of the main contenders to challenge Mr Clinton next year has thus far been the dog which has failed to bark in the Republican field. In the polls he is stuck in low single figures, far behind conservatives Pat Buchanan and Phil Gramm, let alone Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader and the established - if somewhat shaky of late - front-runner.

"America needs a leader with the courage of his convictions," Mr Wilson declared, pointing to his record in California of balancing the state's budget, attacking crime with the "three strikes and you're out" law for repeat criminals and leading national campaigns to get rid of affirmative action and stamp out illegal immigration.

Such trite oratory, little more than a politician's assemblage of slogans, did nothing to dent the governor's reputation as a tediously bland and buttoned- down public speaker. Mr Wilson's strength is that he wins elections - nine of 10 in his public career, including two times apiece for US Senator and governor of the country's richest and most populous state.

He has, moreover, a proven ability to zero in on issues that concern voters and he is a peerless fund-raiser. For all these reasons, few commentators are ready to write off his campaign, despite its faltering start. The Wilson camp insists that there is time aplenty to make up ground, and attribute the lack of impact thus far to a recent throat operation, which for weeks rendered the governor literally almost speechless, and the need to stay home to secure passage of next year's California state budget.

His main problem now will be to win the trust of Republican voters, especially the conservative activists who figure large in the primary process, and who are deeply suspicious of Mr Wilson's history of increasing taxes, and his past support for abortion and gay rights - two issues passed over in silence yesterday.

The New York opening will be followed by a five-day, eight- state tour taking him to several states with key early primaries, including Iowa, Georgia and Florida in the South and inevitably New Hampshire, scene of the all-important first primary next February, and where a Wilson TV advertising campaign is starting this week.

Even more heartening perhaps are growing signs that the contest for the Republican nomination will be anything but a coronation for Mr Dole. The Senate majority leader commands respect among the party faithful, but little enthusiasm. A string of dismal speeches, and a bare tie with Mr Gramm in last month's straw-poll in Iowa, considered a Dole stronghold, have dented his standing further. His previous 30-per-cent lead over his rivals is narrowing. Should the Dole campaign unravel, Mr Wilson could be the ideal candidate to pick up the pieces.

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