LOS ANGELES -- With his habitual care and neatness, the Republican candidate for governor of California donned an apron at a booth in the steamy, crowded Grand Central Market here and wrapped up five pork chops for an elderly Hispanic woman. "Gracias, senåora," he said, handing her $5.75 in change and offering the smile that is the limit of his range of public emotion.
Less than six weeks before the nation's most important gubernatorial election, Sen. Pete Wilson is politely injecting himself once more into the lives of 14 million California voters, most of whom still do not know him well despite his 24 years in elective office.
In a series of polished, expensive television commercials, and in campaign stops like his recent visit to Henry Penilla's Pork Kitchen, the low-key former mayor of San Diego has been exposing, as best he can, his personal side, the warmth and concern for the victims of society that friends say is often obscured by modesty and reserve.
Opposed by former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein (D), one of the state's most vibrant and effusive campaigners, in a race with few pivotal differences on issues, Wilson appears determined to help voters to like him, even if the eventual result may depend more on how many people dislike Feinstein.
One of his new commercials shows Wilson and his wife, Gayle, on one of the seven visits to prenatal nurseries he has made in the last 12 months. In the 30-second spot he talks about crack babies, the children born to crack cocaine addicts: "If you held these kids, if you listen to them cry, if you see them writhing -- this is child abuse through the umbilical cord. These are innocently addicted babies, born prematurely because of their mother's using drugs, and they go through hell."
The performance is vintage Wilson: the voice mostly flat, the face almost expressionless. But the words, and his legislative initiatives on this and other social welfare issues, seem to have helped create the image of a compassionate conservative that he and his managers hope will draw middle-of-the-road voters also attracted to Feinstein's hard-edged liberalism.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School, recalled Feinstein's favorite description of herself -- "tough but caring" -- then ticked off the most recent Wilson commercials on early education, prenatal care and crime victims' rights. "What is that supposed to tell you?" Jeffe said. "He's tough but caring too."
In a race this close, several analysts said, anything can become important. A bitter stalemate in the Persian Gulf could sink Wilson in the polls because of his close ties to President Bush. A few more stories on the financial dealings of Feinstein's investor husband, Richard Blum, could bring Wilson back up again.
California has just become the first state to pass the 30 million population mark. Whichever party wins the governorship will have important influence over redrawing district lines for what will become the largest congressional delegation in U.S. history. Republicans have no hope of regaining control of the state legislature this year and so are trying to maximize their fund-raising advantage in the governor's race.
A Mervin Field California Poll of 894 registered voters released Aug. 30 showed Wilson ahead 45 to 42 percent, a statistical tie. A Los Angeles Times Poll of 1,586 voters released Aug. 25 said the race was tied, with each candidate at 39 percent. The Times said Feinstein had lost an early advantage among women. Field said there was still a female preference for Feinstein, balanced by a male preference for Wilson.
Wilson was strongly preferred by conservatives and Feinstein by liberals, even though both candidates are pro-death penalty, pro-abortion rights moderates closer to each other ideologically than any opposing gubernatorial candidates here in recent memory.
Ken Khachigian, an Orange County attorney active in outgoing Republican Gov. George Deukmejian's two winning campaigns, said Wilson successfully weathered the pro-Feinstein surge of spring and early summer, when she was hailed as a fresh, feminist force in U.S. politics. Jeffe and Khachigian agree that Feinstein erred in attacking Wilson for "lying" in a campaign spot that alleged connections between Blum and the savings and loan scandal. The negative advertisement made her seem "just one of the boys and part of the problem of politics as usual," Jeffe said.
Dislike or distrust of Feinstein was by far the principal reason given for favoring Wilson in the California Poll. Thirty-five percent of Wilson supporters mentioned it, compared to 22 percent of Feinstein backers who expressed dislike or distrust of Wilson.
According to the Almanac of American Politics, Wilson in his 1988 Senate reelection "won more votes in a single election than anyone in the history of the United States Congress."
"Pete has always been underestimated as a campaigner," Khachigian said. Unlike Feinstein, Wilson has been in a statewide campaign and "he is much less likely to make mistakes," Khachigian said.
Moving through a series of public events one day recently, including a high school assembly, a Hispanic business lunch and the market visit, Wilson showed little of Feinstein's talent for hugs and personal references and energetic speechmaking, but he still won some applause.
He is much better at proposing policy initiatives, such as putting social service agencies in the public schools, that win praise even from newspapers such as the Sacramento Bee that have Democratic leanings. Wilson's aides promote a campaign theme of "performance, not promises," and emphasize his record of toughening criminal laws and blocking offshore oil drilling.
He also probes Feinstein's weak spots relentlessly. Her promise to hire minorities in proportion to their percentage of the population allowed him to warn against quotas, a term she rejects but has had to answer repeated questions about.
During one day of Hispanic events, nearly everyone introducing Wilson, including the Bell High School student body president and a spokesman for the United Latino Political Association, used anti-quota language seemingly taken from the candidate's script. Then Wilson would tell of his support for the new Bush-appointed U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Lourdes Baird, a Hispanic Democrat.
"She didn't get the job because she was a woman," Wilson said. "She didn't get it because she is a Latina, and, God knows, she didn't get it because she's a Democrat. She got it because she's the best possible person for the job."