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Wilson sets sights on presidency


in Washington

Governor Pete Wilson of California, described by the pundits as a "moderately conservative" Republican, has thrown his hat into the ring for the 1996 presidential election. He announced yesterday the formation of an exploratory committee to raise campaign funds but, teasingly, he stopped short of formally declaring his candidacy.

While Mr Wilson is viewed in Republican circles as a dark horse for the presidency, Democrats have privately acknowledged that he is one of the candidates against whom President Bill Clinton would least like to run.

Silver-haired, conventionally handsome, a former US Marine officer (which takes care of the patriotism question), Mr Wilson's perceived moderation derives from his support for choice on abortion, arguably the most contentious issue in American politics. Here he differs from the two front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination, Senators Bob Dole and Phil Gramm, both careful not to offend the most militant sector of their party's support base, the Christian Right.

Mr Wilson has taken a stand on a woman's right to choose but otherwise has made a point of tailoring his political beliefs to fit the generally accepted interpretation - as taken from the opinion polls - of what it is the Republican party faithful want.

Accordingly, he is hard on "free-loading immigrants". "It is wrong to look the other way and reward illegal immigrants for violating our borders and our laws," he said in a speech on Wednesday.

He is hard on affirmative action. "It is wrong . . . to give special preference based on race or gender." He is hard on Washington. "California is a proud and sovereign state, and not a colony of the federal government."

He is also hard on crime - recently he allowed California's first legal execution in 25 years - and hard on taxes, which he has inevitably pledged to cut during the coming year of his governorship.

Governor Wilson, in short, is pressing all the right Republican buttons. One of his toughest problems in the nomination race will be to banish the idea from Republican minds that his tolerance of abortion is evidence that he is a closet liberal. Should he succeed, and win the nomination, he would then remove the hard man's mask and reveal himself to the broader voting public - a much wetter lot than the average Republican primary participant - as a conservative with a smile, a heart of gold and (usefully) a beautiful wife.

For the moment, he has two big problems. A substantial proportion of California voters, having only elected him governor four months ago, see his willingness to run for the presidency as a betrayal - not least as he promised during his campaign that he would not run for national office.

His other problem is lack of name recognition outside California, which is why next week he will travel to Washington, New York and Boston to raise funds and appear on television.