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COOLIDGE-LIKE WILSON MAY HAVE A CHANCE AT PASSING UP DOLE

Last weekend at the Willard Hotel, near the White House he proposes to move into in 17 months, Pete Wilson occupied the Calvin Coolidge Suite. That was not incongruous.

Like Coolidge, whose flinty demeanor concealed a considerable wit, Wilson only seems as bland as oatmeal. He can be funny and scathing (on foreign policy President Clinton "doesn't appreciate the gravity of his own inadequacies") but rarely lets those aspects of his personality interfere with the sedative effect of his public persona. And like Coolidge, Wilson knows how executive action can get the nation's attention.Gov. Coolidge came to national prominence, and to the vice presidency, because he used the militia to break the Boston police strike of 1918. Wilson has been around politics since serving as an advance man for Nixon's ill-fated gubernatorial campaign in 1962. He became a political heavyweight when he became governor in 1991. But he did not capture the attention of a national audience until he got the regents of the University of California to repeal affirmative action.

So aides to this 61-year-old, who is on the threshold of his fourth decade in public office, think he may be the closest thing to a fresh face in the Republican race. His issues, like his manner of advancing them, are what you might expect from a former Marine platoon leader. They are four facets of the nation's fraying, as conservatives understand that: affirmative action, illegal immigration (in 1994 he led the charge for Proposition 187, which limits social services for illegals), welfare (there has been a decline in welfare spending, or welfare reform, or both, in each of his five years as governor) and crime (he was an early advocate of a "three strikes and you're out" sentencing law).

His affirmative action dust-up caused his support for the nomination to double between June and July. Double a small number (5 percent) and you get a not very large number, but it puts him third, close behind Sen. Phil Gramm (13 percent) whose rivals say he is (in the political verb of the week) "cratering." That means crashing to earth hard.

Wilson will not stumble: No one is more doggedly disciplined about staying on message. And having won four statewide elections in 12 years, he can plausibly say to Republicans: Clinton is so weak in the South and much of the West, he cannot win without California's 54 electoral votes, so nominate me and be assured of Republican control of both political branches of the federal government for the first time since 1954.