Pete warms up for his White House run

Governor Wilson rides back into favour by exploiting California's right-wing backlash One question haunts today's Republicans: was the late Richard Nixon right?

FROM PHIL REEVES

in Los Angeles

As candidates for the Republican presidential nomination gather their weapons and wealth in readiness for the battle, one question haunts them - was the late Richard Nixon right?

Before last year's mid-term elections, Nixon forecast that if Pete Wilson were returned as Governor of California, the candidacy would be his to lose. His prophecy sounded like the wishful thinking of an ageing and disgraced former president who wanted to see one of his obscure ex-protgs get his old job.

But the picture has changed. Californians overwhelmingly reelected the once hugely unpopular Mr Wilson in November, preferring him to the Democrats' Kathleen Brown. Nowadays the possibility that his name will appear alongside those of Washington heavyweights such as Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader, and Phil Gramm, the Texan senator, is taken seriously on both coasts.

At the weekend, speculation about his candidacy increased further when Mr Wilson and Mr Gramm appeared before 2,000 delegates at a state Republican convention. Although the Californian governor did not discuss the presidential race, he declared his support for a potentially explosive state-wide referendum to end government programmes which give minority and female preference for jobs, promotions, contracts, and college admissions.

His announcement reeked of calculation: polls show that proposals to roll back affirmative action are popular among California's predominantly white, increasingly conservative-leaning electorate. Mr Wilson was evidently keen to make it his issue.

Mr Wilson has several critical points in his favour. California, the most populous US state, has a fifth of the electoral-college votes needed to secure the presidency. Getting to the White House without winning them is considered extremely difficult. As California's self-styled "favourite son" - with nearly three decades in public office behind him - he is optimistic, and so are his supporters.

His rise to become a serious presidential prospect has been low-key, not least because he is a bland man. Even those who know him well have few engaging anecdotes, beyond remarking that he was a Marine and a workaholic who sleeps five hours a night. His lack of charisma or outward humour may well count against him, although the Republican competition is no great shakes.

His best performances tend to be when he is striding purposefully around the wreckage of one of the floods, earthquakes, or fires that have savaged his patch.

But what he lacks in sparkle, he makes up in political acumen. When he was elected as California's Governor in 1990, after an unremarkable stint in the Senate and three terms as mayor of San Diego, he campaigned as a moderate. To the horror of the Republican right, he was liberal on abortion, and waxed lyrical on pre-natal care for low-income mothers, the environment and education. The fears of his party opponents were confirmed when he introduced a $7bn tax increase, the largest in the state's history.

But, as a restless electorate has migrated to the right, so too has Mr Wilson's agenda. His governorship has produced some of the most draconian legislation in Californian history, including "three-strikes" laws under which criminals with two serious felony convictions are imprisoned for life without parole for their third offence, no matter how trifling. As a result, a massive prison-building programme is under way, amid fears that the Golden State is becoming America's penal colony.

During his election campaign, he nailed his colours firmly to the flag of Proposition 187, a public ballot proposal banning illegal immigrants from receiving benefits, health and education. Although the issue was tinged with racism, Mr Wilson's support ensured both its passage and his return to office.

If he does decide to run - and he will need to do so by April if he is to raise the necessary cash - it will not please all of his supporters. Some of the big business interests who helped him to raise $26m for his gubernatorial race do not relish the idea that the money would have been wasted: Mr Wilson's automatic replacement in the governor's chair would be Gray Davis, the Democratic Lieutenant Governor and - horror of horrors - a former aide of Jerry Brown, a former governor whose liberal views still send shudders down right-wing spines.

Nor is it clear that the confidence of Richard Nixon, who gave him Mr Wilson his first political job, will prove well placed. While Californian voters are broadly "pro-choice" on abortion, the Republican faithful - who dominate the primary elections - are not, and may not entertain any but an anti-abortionist candidate. This sentiment has surfaced already. When a straw poll was held at Californian Republican convention last weekend, the winner was not Mr Wilson, but the "pro-life" Senator Phil Gramm.

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