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Calif. Governor Wilson Joins Republican Presidential Race

By Ronald Brownstein and Cathleen Decker
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

California Gov. Pete Wilson's candidacy promises to rearrange the shape of the Republican presidential race, even though he faces significant barriers to fulfilling his hopes of winning the White House.

If Wilson's decision Thursday to form a presidential exploratory committee leads him to formally join the race, he would enter the field as a full-fledged rival to the current front-runners, Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas and Phil Gramm of Texas.

Wilson's assets are substantial. California provides him an immense political and fund-raising base and he has demonstrated a sharply honed message that some analysts consider the most powerful issues in politics today - affirmative action, illegal immigration, welfare and crime.

Just by entering the race, Wilson would scramble calculations for the other Republican hopefuls. As a candidate who supports abortion rights, he would threaten to eclipse Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who has based his campaign largely on his support for legal abortion. And with his base in Sacramento, Wilson would void former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander's claim to be the sole Washington outsider in the race. Most significantly, Wilson would add a major new factor to the duel between Gramm and Dole. Gramm is running hard toward the right, hoping to consolidate support among the conservative elements of the party. Dole is hoping to blunt Gramm's charge among conservatives and capture the support of less ideological Republicans.

Most analysts believe that Wilson, with his hybrid of conservative and moderate positions, primarily would take votes that otherwise might go to Dole and perhaps Alexander.

Wilson favors abortion rights and wants to remove anti-abortion language from the party platform. He has signed legislation to prohibit employment discrimination against homosexuals. And he opposes a repeal of the ban on semiautomatic weapons that Congress approved last year.

With the exception of the state tax increase, those positions might stand Wilson well in a general election but they will be more difficult to defend in Republican primaries, where well-organized conservative groups can exert enormous influence.

"Most gun owners will view his candidacy with disdain," predicted Tanya K. Metaska, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. And in Iowa, traditionally the first proving ground in the presidential race, Wilson will confront a well-organized Christian conservative movement.

Geography poses a challenge for Wilson as well. Wilson aides rarely discuss Iowa and leave little impression that they intend to focus there. New Hampshire, historically the most important primary in the race, looms larger in their calculations, though they suggest that if Wilson runs they would not undertake the massively time-intensive door-to-door campaign for which the state is renowned.