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Wilson Campaign Hits Rocky Seas Back Home

Californians angered by 'broken promises'

CALIFORNIA Gov. Pete Wilson is stumping in New Hampshire today, hoping to find his way out of the woods. But every step may take him farther into the forest. Consider Mr. Wilson's recent troubles: Last week he said he wouldn't compete in the Iowa caucuses, the kickoff of the presidential primary season. One of his closest political advisers resigned Wednesday, and his campaign already faces heavy debts. Ominously, his base of support in his home state appears to be eroding since he broke his own pledge not to seek the presidency if reelected as California's chief executive. The more time he spends campaigning out of state, the more it may hurt him at home. Is a candidate who was once thought a serious presidential contender already as dead as fallen hemlock? Experts disagree. ''He's in about as serious trouble as you can get without being finished,'' says an influential GOP strategist in California. ''The overarching difficulty is that his California base ... is collapsing.'' In conservative Orange County, a recent poll by the University of California at Irvine put Wilson 20 points behind GOP front-runner Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. Perhaps more telling, the poll showed President Clinton beating the governor. But others aren't as bleak. Internal campaign disputes are not always fatal. Ronald Reagan fired his campaign chief on the day of the New Hampshire primary in 1980, and he went on to do pretty well. And the primaries are still five months away. ''I don't think'' he's in serious trouble, says Sal Russo, a GOP strategist in Sacramento, Calif.. ''Campaigns have upheavals. But he does need some good news. Fortunately, the states he needs to do well in come early.'' Still, by putting Iowa aside, Wilson runs some risks. He is banking heavily on making a strong showing in the Northeast - particularly early-bird New Hampshire. But to do well there, candidates must spend time shaking hands and eating cole slaw. Yet every day he spends in the Granite State, he stokes anger among Californians who feel neglected, says William Schneider, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. ''The strategy could be perilous. Breaking his promise has had enormous repercussions.'' His standing at home may also have been hurt by his failure - so far - to deliver on a promised package of tax cuts, something he could use to portray himself nationally as a fiscal conservative. ''The public sees lots of problems statewide, from its two largest counties in trouble to chaos in its legislature,'' says Mark DiCamillo of the California Poll. ''They reelected Wilson to handle those and they are angry that he [is] running around the country campaigning.'' Even if Wilson spends enough time in New Hampshire to make gains, a cloud hangs over all the GOP candidates in the state. ''Colin Powell knocks them all down,'' says former Gov. Hugh Gregg (R). Discord within the Wilson organization is highly uncharacteristic, observers note. Although the governor has gained a reputation over the years as a roller- bearing-smooth campaigner - without a single defeat - his organization has never been tested nationally, which may account for some of the strain. But the more the campaign falters, the more difficult it will be to raise money and gain momentum. ''You lose time, money, and effort trying to contain and trouble-shoot, which can be very draining on focus and strategy, not to mention fund-raising,'' says Sherry Jeffe, a political analyst at the Claremont Graduate School. Still, Mr. Russo says that if Wilson can weather the storm and make solid gains in New Hampshire, he'll recover. ''If he does well [in the East], he'll be back in the saddle here.''

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