Wilson for Senate

Posted: Mar 19, 2003 12:00 AM

Former Gov. Pete Wilson has been enjoying himself since he was term-limited from office. He's had his fun. He has learned to drive again -- not that he's an ace behind the wheel, according to my sources.

So it's time for Wilson to get back to work: He should run against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

The California Republican Party needs the win -- and Wilson is the most likely person to deliver it.

Who else? Word is, Ah-nold Schwarzenegger doesn't want to be one among a hundred. He's not an extra. U.S. Reps. Darrell Issa, Doug Ose and George Radanovich might make attractive candidates -- if voters knew who they were.

Bill Simon, who lost to the wildly unpopular Gov. Gray Davis in November, is the leading GOP candidate for Boxer's seat, according to a Los Angeles Times poll. I guess some people want to watch Simon lose twice to a beatable Democrat.

Here's a simple fact: Simon can't draw the necessary swing votes. In November, the Los Angeles Times exit poll found that a pitiful 10 percent of Democrats voted for Simon. Davis won more independent voters (39 percent) than did Simon (38 percent).

Compare those numbers with Wilson's showing in 1994. Wilson won 21 percent of the Democratic vote and 52 percent of independents.

"He's pro-choice. He fixed a broken economy," -- Wilson didn't dither Grayly when he faced a huge shortfall -- "and he's gotten crossover votes every time he's been elected to statewide office," crowed former Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh. Wilson has won four statewide races -- two for the U.S. Senate, two for governor.

Wilson turns 70 in August. He serves as an adviser to the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board and President Bush's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Wilson, I'm sure, would enjoy challenging Boxer for being one of 23 senators to vote against intervention in Iraq.

Why would he run? Because he can win. But also, I think Wilson doesn't want his obituary to read that he was the Republican who drove Latinos away from the GOP by sponsoring Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that sought to curb illegal immigration.

It's not true. Though Wilson supported 187, he didn't sponsor it. Yes, one of his campaign spots showed illegal immigrants crossing the border. But one spot is not enough reason for Democrats to brand Wilson as a divisive Latino-basher -- not with his support for the 1986 illegal immigrant amnesty bill.

I think Wilson would welcome a chance to tell his story. He doesn't believe a politician should have to apologize for supporting a cause that 59 percent of Californians supported, not because voters were anti-immigrant, but because they were anti-illegal immigration.

In 1994, when the Dems tried to paint him as a pro-187 extremist, it backfired. Wilson was the centrist. He won re-election handily; 187 passed. It would pass again tomorrow.

It's true that after 1994, the GOP Latino vote flagged and the GOP began running away from 187. Wilson, however, thinks the Republican Party can address the problems of illegal immigration while continuing to reach out to Latino voters.

The key is to hold the center -- and Wilson managed to do that, not running against fringies, but popular Democrats like Dianne Feinstein and Kathleen Brown.

If, Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo noted, you can occupy the center and "push Boxer to the ideological corner, to the liberal side, you put her on the defensive," he said. "The reason Boxer won initially, there were two candidates who occupied a corner and Boxer was more successful at appealing to moderates" than Bruce Herschensohn, who wanted to bring back the gold standard.

Then came Matt Fong, who, according to Boxer, deviated from the mainstream on abortion and gay rights.

Boxer also was aided by Democratic operative Bob Mulholland's 11th-hour accusation that Herschensohn frequented strip joints.

Lucky for Boxer, she's had two very middling GOP opponents. Her lucky streak likely would end if a savvy moderate like Pete Wilson threw his hat into the ring.