Former California Gov. Pete Wilson is reportedly set to endorse Rudy Giuliani today. Wilson won’t help much with religious conservatives, but he has a lot of credibility with immigration hawks. Wilson’s support for the successful Proposition 187 initiative is often credited with his come-from-behind victory in 1994 (some say it was a pyrrhich victory that led to the destruction of the California Republican Party, though I personally agree with Steve Sailer about this bit of conventional wisdom).
The implications for California Republican politics aside, the endorsement is a reminder of why many observers thought it unlikely that a pro-choice candidate like Giuliani could become the Republican frontrunner. Wilson briefly ran for the 1996 GOP nomination. Although a reasonably successful two-term governor and former senator from the nation’s largest state, he went nowhere and dropped out before the Iowa caucuses. There were several reasons for this — Wilson had throat cancer and campaign fundraising problems — but the most important was probably his pro-choice stand. Fellow pro-choicer Arlen Specter fared about as well.
Note, however, that Giuliani differs from Wilson in important ways that may explain his success. Wilson explicitly ran against social conservatives, while Giuliani is courting them by moving their way slightly on abortion. Wilson wanted to strip the Republican platform of its pro-life plank while Giuliani has said he would leave the platform alone. With the exception of his right turn on immigration and racial preferences, Wilson was a moderate across the board — he had raised taxes, boosted spending, and railed against Orange County conservatives. Giuliani is a tax cutter, much less of a big spender, and admired by conservative groups like the Club for Growth.
Even after 9/11, Giuliani would be a much harder sell to conservatives if he were running a Pete Wilson-style campaign.
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