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BLAND WILSON A FORMIDABLE CHALLENGER IN '96

Among the Republicans measuring Bill Clinton's Oval Office chair for use after 1996, few have more imposing credentials than Pete Wilson.

His resume includes rich experiences as mayor of San Diego, U.S. senator and governor of California. None of his fellow presidential aspirants has held a more glittering array of posts.Yet despite his credentials, Wilson's decision to consider a run for the White House tells us as much about the political power base of presidential aspirants as about Wilson himself.

If he were not governor of California - the wealthiest and most populous state and the one with the biggest bloc of electoral votes - Wilson might not be preparing to chase the rainbow that rises out of the Iowa cornfields next February and, if all goes well, ends in the White House nearly a year later.

He is a pleasant fellow with a bland personality who is not likely to ignite fervor among voters in the various caucus and primary election states.

As governor, Wilson has guided his state through earthquakes, fires, floods, landslides and a deep, long-lasting period of economic stagnation. In each instance, he has exerted quiet leadership and little flamboyance.

Last year, he staged a remarkable come-from-behind drive to defeat Kathleen Brown, the California secretary of state whose father and brother each served two terms as governor. The magic carpet that swept him to victory was Proposition 187, a ballot measure that decreed a cut-off of most social services to illegal immigrants and their children.

Wilson was not the creator of the initiative. But once he gauged its public appeal, he climbed aboard and rode it to victory.

With Wilson, Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich in attendance, Washington's Gridiron Club of leading journalists recently took light-hearted aim at Wilson's stance on immigration. To the tune of "Don't Fence Me In," a singer impersonating Wilson intoned:

"I'm going to rise to the top of this whole damn nation. Closing up the borders is my inspiration.

"Pete Wilson puts a stop to all immigration. Just fence 'em out."

Once viewed as a moderate Republican who advocated abortion rights, a ban on assault weapons and employment protection for gays, he retains those positions but on others has moved rightward with his party.

Still, the truth is that Wilson's presidential dreams are based less on his ideology and personality than on his home base. It would be almost impossible for Clinton to be re-elected without California's electoral vote, and Wilson probably could deliver the state better than any other candidate.