Former California Gov. Pete Wilson provided Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman a valuable endorsement in the GOP primary, when he declared she would be "tough as nails" on illegal immigration.
But what made that recommendation resonate for many conservatives — Wilson championed Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants — has become a liability now that Whitman is trying to win over Latino and independent voters.
Not surprisingly, Wilson, Whitman's campaign chairman, has all but disappeared from public view.
"Pete Wilson was important before June 8," conservative talk show host Ken Chiampou said in an interview this month with Whitman. "He doesn't seem important now."
To reduce Wilson's role in Whitman's campaign to the immigration issue or to one "tough as nails" radio ad, however, is to miss the significance of his involvement.
Early in the contest, Wilson's support was significant in signaling to GOP insiders that Whitman, with no political experience, could run a credible campaign.
He came with a Rolodex full of donors and consultants, many of whom helped Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger win election. He also had the perspective of being a former two-term governor and U.S. senator. If Whitman cared to talk strategy, he is the the only Republican to have defeated her Democratic opponent in an election.
Wilson beat Jerry Brown for Senate in 1982.
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